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Clean innings in mop-up duty

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / July 23, 2012
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Taking the ball from Jon Lester in the fifth inning after Lester had been roughed up was something Junichi Tazawa had done as recently as last Tuesday.

When the White Sox got to Lester for six earned runs, including Kevin Youkilis’s three-run bomb in the fourth that knocked the lefthander out of the game, Tazawa came in and threw four innings of one-run ball.

Tazawa walked into a similar cloud of smoke and pile of rubble Sunday in the Red Sox’ 15-7 loss to the Blue Jays at Fenway Park.

Lester had just given up a two-run shot to Travis Snider in the fifth, running his tab to a career-high 11 runs allowed, including five in the first inning.

He had made shorter starts this season, but this was far and away his worst start of the year, the point at which he got a clear view of rock bottom.

It made no difference to Tazawa that he would be taking the mound with the Red Sox trailing, 11-4.

“No matter what the situation or what the circumstances are, my mentality is to go out there and do my job,” Tazawa said through a translator. “Pitch well and do what I can to help my team.”

Tazawa threw three scoreless innings. His five strikeouts were the most he’s ever racked up in a relief appearance and just one shy of the career high he recorded in an August 2009 start against the Tigers. Since being called up July 15, he’s allowed just two runs in nine innings.

“Taz has done a great job the past two times of picking me up and getting deep in the game,” Lester said. “Y’all should be talking to him right now. He’s done an outstanding job.”

In the seventh inning, Tazawa struck out the side, dialing his fastball up to 95 miles per hour to blow one past Blue Jays catcher Jeff Mathis.

“I think it’s great that I got up to 95, but more than that, the No. 1 thing is my command,” he said. “Making sure I throw it where I want to throw it.”

He got Yunel Escobar and Edwin Encarnacion staring at his fastball in the sixth, then J.P. Arencibia, Rajai Davis, and Mathis all chased after it the next inning.

“He commanded the baseball,” said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “He threw the fastball where he wanted. He had a good split going and he was able to keep them off with that curveball. Any time you can do that with an aggressive team, you’re going to have good success.”

Tazawa underwent Tommy John surgery in the spring of 2010, and the comeback has lasted into this season.

He’s made 25 appearances in Triple A, regaining his physical abilities and his confidence.

“When I first came back from Tommy John, there was always a concern, always a mental block,” Tazawa said. “Right now, I’m feeling really good, and I think I’ve worked myself past the surgery.

“The main concern I had was with my range of motion. It actually took longer than most people, I think, to regain my range of motion, so that was also a real mental stress. But I had a lot of people working around me supporting me throughout the process, so that really helped me out.”

Said Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, “Tazawa’s pitching so well. That’s a great performance by him. That’s three in a row for him, really.”

While he was in Pawtucket, Tazawa got used to pitching long relief. So he was prepared for situations such as the ones he’s been in recently.

“My goal is to pitch well no matter what the situation is,” Tazawa said. “Just make sure I’m able to pitch when the team needs me.”

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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