ST. PETERSBURG -- When a team falls out of contention for a postseason berth, storylines can be lost. With the Red Sox, there might be none bigger than the emergence of Junichi Tazawa.
Not only is Tazawa throwing the ball harder than he was before Tommy John surgery -- or perhaps at any other point in his career -- but he is putting up the numbers of an elite setup man.
The righty has pitched in 30 games for the Red Sox this season, posting a 1.43 ERA over 37 2/3 innings.
"The confidence is definitely there, along with some good nerves that keep me stable," said Tazawa. "I focus on each pitch, each at-bat, and the results have been good, which has led to my confidence."
Heading into 2013, Tazawa looks like someone who will be primed to pitch in high-leverage situations for the Red Sox, something he has done consistently of late.
"I don't really see the seventh or eighth inning as my role; I see my role to be prepared whenever I'm called upon," Tazawa said. "I don't worry about when I'm throwing. I'm more worried about just being prepared whenever it is."
Tazawa initially was on the developmental path as a starter, but he has pitched exclusively in relief this season.
"Before I had Tommy John, my elbow used to just swell up a little bit, and I wasn't able to throw the way I wanted to," said Tazawa. "I wasn't hitting the velocity I knew I was capable of. Right now, I think I'm finally starting to pitch the way I want to, reach the velocity I want to and the results have been there."
He hasn't ruled out giving starting another try, should the Red Sox give him that opportunity.
"I haven't pitched up to 100 pitches since my surgery, so I can't really say," Tazawa said. "If I'm given the opportunity to have a pitch count that high, I'd like to give it a try. The more important thing is I just came back and I'm still proving myself right now. It's just focusing on the task I'm given at the moment and make sure I produce the results that the team is expecting from me."
As season winds down, Ellsbury heating up
ST. PETERSBURG -- Perhaps because of how easy baseball can look for Jacoby Ellsbury when he is going well, people underestimated how challenging it would be for the center fielder to return to the Red Sox's lineup following a three-month absence.
From July 13 to Sept. 9, Ellsbury hit .265 with three homers, 15 RBIs and a .299 on-base percentage over 219 at-bats. Over the past week, he has finally looked like his old self, hitting .400 (12-for-30).
"You're basically starting over in Spring Training again," said Ellsbury, who missed 79 games after partially dislocating his right shoulder on April 13. "I had Spring Training, but when you miss that much time, it's basically an offseason. Coming back in, pitchers are in midseason, everyone's in midseason form, you've got to play catch-up. I just tried to stick with the approach and just know it's going to happen."
At last it is happening. Ellsbury hit a two-run homer on Monday, part of a three-hit night that fueled the Red Sox to a 5-2 victory over the playoff-minded Rays. Last week, he had a four-hit game in a win over the Yankees.
Ellsbury is starting to resemble the player who nearly won the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 2011. While it's too late to save the Red Sox this season, it should help Ellsbury's confidence going into the winter.
"Like I said, I know if I get my season's worth of at-bats, my numbers will be where they need to be," said Ellsbury. "Unfortunately, I can't get those at-bats back. Here on out the rest of the year, I'll just try to be as consistent as I can, continue to play hard, and I know good things are going to happen."
Middlebrooks plays catch, but can't swing bat yet
ST. PETERSBURG -- For the first time since fracturing his right wrist on Aug. 10, third baseman Will Middlebrooks threw a baseball on Tuesday.
"At this point we knew the fracture is healed and we had been doing a lot of stretching and I felt good, so I said, 'Let's go toss.' So we went out and tossed a little bit, just about 60 feet," said Middlebrooks. "It felt fine, just a little tight and a bit awkward. It has been six weeks."
The next big milestone for Middlebrooks will be swinging a bat.
When might that happen?
"Probably in a couple of weeks," Middlebrooks said. "I grabbed a [bat] a few days ago and it was pretty sore and I thought, 'OK, not the right time.' But today I grabbed it and it was a lot better. It's still not good and I couldn't swing, but it's a start."
Being sidelined with a major injury for the first time in his career has been tough to take for Middlebrooks.
"I've been impatient for the last four weeks," Middlebrooks said, "but it felt good to get out there today and make some throws. I felt like a baseball player again."
Before the injury, Middlebrooks was probably the story of the season for the Red Sox. He hit .288 with 15 homers and 54 RBIs in 75 games.
Lester is Boston's nominee for Clemente Award
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Red Sox announced on Tuesday that lefty Jon Lester is their nominee for the prestigious Roberto Clemente Award, which recognizes a player who best represents the game through positive contributions on and off the field.
Each of Major League Baseball's 30 teams have a nominee. The last two years, Boston's nominee -- Tim Wakefield in 2010 and David Ortiz last season -- won the award.
After overcoming cancer in 2006, Lester has given a lot of his time to various charitable endeavors.
His newly-formed NVRQT ("Never Quit") initiative launched with the pediatric cancer research foundation this year, on the five-year anniversary of Lester being declared cancer-free.
Voting is under way through Oct. 14 at MLB.com/ClementeAward as fans help decide which of those 30 club winners will receive this prestigious recognition. The nominees were chosen based on their dedication to giving back to the community, as well as their outstanding ability on the field.
Fans who participate in the vote will be automatically registered for a chance to win a trip to the 2012 World Series.
Lackey to pitch during instructional league game
ST. PETERSBURG -- Red Sox right-hander John Lackey will get his first and last taste of game competition for 2012 when he pitches against instructional league hitters in Fort Myers, Fla., on Sunday.
For Lackey, the outing -- which will be during an intrasquad game -- will be a good way to take some more momentum into the offseason.
"That will be his last duty of the season," said manager Bobby Valentine.
Lackey threw against teammates at Tropicana Field on Tuesday, throwing two simulated innings, each of which were 15 pitches.
"He said afterwards he felt really good," Valentine said. "He threw everything but his cutter. He happened to acknowledge that the medical staff was outstanding right from Spring Training throughout the entire season. He feels really good about where he is."
Lackey underwent Tommy John surgery last October. Everything has gone as scheduled during Lackey's rehab, meaning he should have a typical winter and be ready for the start of 2013.
With his arm repaired, Lackey hopes to regain the form he had when he was the long-time ace of the Angels.