BOSTON — When the Boston Red Sox won their first two games of the season in Yankee Stadium, six relievers were used:
Joel Hanrahan (twice), Andrew Miller (twice), Andrew Bailey, Alfredo Aceves, Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa.
And don’t forget, Daniel Bard was supposed to eventually join that mix.
Hanrahan, Miller and Bailey landed on the disabled list for the season.
Boston banished Aceves to the minors and Bard came back only briefly.
Uehara emerged as the closer but getting to the amazing Koji was a concern. These Boston Red Sox were rolling to the AL East title but fans worried about a flaw.
Boston relievers blew 24 saves, third-most in the American League, most of those in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings.
But now the Red Sox feature a three-headed monster, or if you like the boxing analogies, Boston can jab with the left and jab with the right before delivering the knockout blow from its closer.
Left-hander Craig Breslow, and right-handers Tazawa and Uehara.
In the American League division series, they combined for nine innings, allowing four hits and one run (a homer off Uehara). In the clinching game against Tampa Bay, the threesome worked 31/3 one-hit scoreless innings.
Look for them often in the AL Championship Series, which begins Saturday night at Fenway Park.
“Those three guys are going to be leaned on heavily,” Manager John Farrell said. “Any time you get three or four guys you can work into the mix that can close out games, you can’t ever understate the importance.”
All three are a surprise.
Uehara was supposed to be a setup man who, at 38, would have to have his workload monitored.
Breslow has never appeared dominant despite good numbers (maybe it’s his size, which is generously listed as 6-foot-1, 181 pounds in the media guide) or the fact he began the year on the disabled list. He made a rehab appearance in Portland, faced four batters and didn’t get an out.
Tazawa was an up-and-coming reliever who also showed a tendency to give up big hits.
While Uehara was moved to the closer’s role at the end of June, Breslow posted a 4.38 ERA for the month. Tazawa was purring along.
Uehara began an incredible run as closer — 21 saves, 19 of which were perfect. He finished the year with a 1.09 ERA. And the 38-year-old set career bests for games (73) and innings (741/3).
Breslow righted himself. He recorded a 1.05 ERA the last three months, allowing only two earned runs since July 6. His Game 4 performance against Tampa Bay was stellar (12/3 innings, one hit, four strikeouts).
“He hasn’t received the recognition he deserves,” Farrell said of Breslow’s six-year career and 2.82 ERA.
That under-appreciation begins with five previous teams (including Boston in 2008) that either released or waived Breslow.
Tazawa, meanwhile, had some tough moments this season. He allowed nine home runs and opposing teams recorded a .447 slugging average against him. That ranked 115th among 138 relievers with at least 20 innings.
Tazawa made 11 appearances in September. Eight were scoreless. In the other three he pitched a total of two innings, giving up six runs on eight hits.
“Despite some inconsistencies in the second half of the year, we’ve never lost confidence in him,” Farrell said. “There might have been a couple of pitches that were mislocated over a period of time, but I thought the stuff and the power to his fastball had maintained itself throughout the second half.”
But a mislocated pitch in the playoffs is amplified.
“Don’t worry about Taz. He’s throwing great,” Breslow said after Tuesday night’s Game 4 against the Rays. Tazawa followed Breslow in that game and struck out pinch-hitter Matt Joyce before leaving for Uehara.
“Put him in that situation, see that matchup,” Breslow said.
Matchups will be key for Farrell, putting his relievers in the best-case scenario for success.
Brandon Workman is likely the fourth option for Farrell. Teams are hitting .245 against him (third-best in the pen behind Uehara and Breslow). His 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings is second to Uehara (12.2).
Suddenly this bullpen looks solid. The weakness has become a strength. You rarely hear media reports any more fretting about the relief. To that, Breslow shrugs.
“At this point no one is looking to send a message to the media,” he said. “We’re trying to get guys out, however that needs to take place. Whether we match up or one guy throwing multiple innings.
“We feel confident that we have the depth and versatility to protect leads.”
NOTES: Farrell said he likely will use the same roster for the ALCS as he did against Tampa Bay. Farrell also said Jon Lester will start Game 1 but an announcement on the Game 2 starter won’t be made until Friday.
Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or: