Junichi Tazawa struggling to fill closer role for Boston Red Sox


When the season opened it appeared that closing out games would be among the least of the problems that the Boston Red Sox would face. Koji Uehara was coming off another stellar campaign and had established himself as one of the league’s elite closers. He continued to dominate in that role until earlier this month when a line drive fractured his wrist, ending his season.

In Uehara’s absence the closer role has been passed down to Junichi Tazawa, who had performed well as the team’s setup man for the past several seasons. It’s only been a couple of weeks since Tazawa has taken over the 9th inning role, but so far it’s not going well at all.

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Tazawa has recorded a pair of saves since Uehara was placed on the disabled list on August 10, but he also has a pair of ugly blown saves mixed in as well, including a brutal outing on Sunday in which he coughed up 4 runs in a loss to the Kansas City Royals. That implosion could have been a lot worse, if not for base running mistakes that resulted in a pair of runners being thrown out at the plate.

The only explanation Tazawa could offer after the game was that poor weather conditions were to blame for his lackluster performance.  A heavy fog hovered over Fenway Park all afternoon, which resulted in slick field conditions and may have caused some issues with Tazawa getting a grip on the baseball. Those could have been factors, but they are also the same conditions that the other pitchers battled through. The game wasn’t exactly a pitcher’s duel to begin with, but nobody else had as much difficulty getting outs as Tazawa did.

The gloomy weather also doesn’t account for why Tazawa has struggled for weeks. Sunday’s loss was his sixth blown save of the season, five of which have come since July 31. He’s given up at least one run in four of his last eight appearances and has an unsightly 10.13 ERA so far in August.

So what’s bothering Tazawa? Red Sox interim manager Torey Lovullo refused to speculate that these recent struggles could be related to his heavy workload, but we have to at least consider that possibility. Tazawa leads all Red Sox relievers with 54 appearances and 53.0 innings. He has averaged nearly 70 innings per season (including playoffs) over the past two seasons and is on pace to finish in that same range again this year.

We also have to consider that Tazawa may not be comfortable in the closer role. While he’s been used often in high-leverage situations in the past, save situations in tight games can bring an added level of pressure that most pitchers can’t handle. The types of pitchers best suited for that role – the guys with ice water in their veins and short memories – are a rare breed. Tazawa may not be suited for that role and admitted after his latest disappointment that he’s still trying to adjust to it.

"“It certainly is an adjustment,” Tazawa said through an interpreter after Sunday’s loss. “I don’t want to risk, or give up a loss for that adjustment, but I’ll learn from this.”"

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The Red Sox would prefer not having to pile up more losses while Tazawa figures out that adjustment, but what other options do they have? His 3.74 ERA continues to rise above levels that are typically expected from successful closers, but it’s still better than any of Boston’s other remaining healthy relievers have produced. If Lovullo were to turn to another option in the 9th inning, he’d be hard pressed to find anyone with experience in the role who is performing any better this season.

New Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski will have his work cut out for him this winter piecing together a revamped bullpen. His reputation suggests that building a bullpen isn’t his specialty, but that doesn’t mean it’s an area that will go overlooked.

Uehara should return healthy next season, but he’ll also be 41 years old. His health and the potential for age-related decline have to be considered significant risks, so the Red Sox will need to bring in reinforcements with the expectation that they won’t be able to rely on Koji for a full season.

The Red Sox don’t have much choice but to keep sending Tazawa out to close games the rest of this season because they don’t have better options. After the season it will be Dombrowski’s turn to adjust by finding a way to rebuild this shaky group of relievers.