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April 12. 2014 9:20PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Mujica may be key to Sox' success


Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Edward Mujica (54) pitches against the New York Yankees during the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium on Friday night. (Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports)

According to the radar gun, the fastball on which he struck out Brett Gardner to finish Boston's 4-2 win over New York was the hardest Edward Mujica had thrown a pitch this season.

The velocity itself wasn't overly impressive, with its 92 mph equaling the reliever's average heater of a year ago, when he ramped it up closer to 95. But to see it then, under those circumstances, should have been something of a reminder for Red Sox fans - that they've yet to really see what the right-hander can do, and that a pitcher with his track record deserves a chance to prove himself over more than merely an outing or two.

Especially now that it looks as though the Red Sox really need him.

Mujica may have struggled during his first homestand at Fenway Park - yielding five hits and four earned runs over 1 1/3 innings that encompassed two rough appearances - but when pressed into service in the ninth inning Friday because Koji Uehara felt stiffness in shoulder before the game, Mujica looked comfortable in working the ninth inning.

He won a battle with Yangervis Solarte, then got Ichiro Suzuki to fly out, and finally punched out Gardner on five pitches, his smooth frame a reflection of the success he had last year in a similar role in St. Louis, at least until he strained his groin in late August.

The anchor of the Cardinals' bullpen for much of the summer, Mujica saved 37 games in 41 chances during 2013, sporting a 2.78 earned run average, a rate of 1.005 walks and hits per inning pitched, 0.7 walks per nine innings, and making the National League All-Star team. He struggled in September as he tried to pitch through his ailment, and subsequently wasn't trusted to pitch more than two Division Series games in October.

However, when the campaign was finished he registered the fifth-most saves in the National League and most of stats were in line with what he'd done since the start of 2011. They affirmed that when healthy he is a hurler who throws strikes, limits the number of baserunners, and knows how to pitch amid the unique pressures of the ninth inning.

So the Red Sox wasted little time in poaching him from the team that challenged them during the World Series. They offered him $9.5 million for two years, and on Dec. 7 he agreed to a deal with Boston that nearly tripled his career earnings - but filled a priority for the Sox, who needed to beef up their bullpen as part of the insurance plan required when relying upon a 39-year-old closer.

And although there have been some struggles so far, the Sox may need Mujica now more than ever. And his history suggests he should be up to the task. After Friday's win, manager John Farrell declared Uehara as day-to-day, however Uehara subsequently compared the tightness to a feeling he had a couple of years ago with the Rangers. And that instance shut him down for a couple of months in 2012.

It remains to be seen how much time Uehara will miss this time. It could be that long, again. Or he could be back on the mound shortly - but even in that case the club is sure to proceed cautiously with their other-worldly closer, which would likely mean more responsibility for Mujica.

Based on Friday night, Farrell is still as confident as the day the Sox prioritized his signing that the righty can handle that role. He knew before the game that Uehara was unavailable, yet he used Junichi Tazawa in the seventh and the eighth. Then in the ninth he could've pieced together an inning based on matchups, or gone to another of his veterans.

But instead he gave the ball to Mujica, in Yankee Stadium, with a two-run lead. It was an opportunity, based on what he's done in his career, Mujica had earned. And as his importance increases for Boston, it should've earned him some trust, too, regardless of what the radar gun might say or how a couple early outings may have gone.

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A leadoff hitter's primary responsibility is to get on base ahead of the lineup's run-producers, but a close second among his roles is seeing pitches. And while the Red Sox' replacements for Jacoby Ellsbury have struggled to do the former at the start of games - reaching in just three of their first 11 contests - they have been fulfilling the latter part of those duties.

Entering Saturday, Boston's first batter had seen at least four pitches in nine of 11 games, and were averaging 4.55 pitches per plate appearance. That's just a fraction below the 4.57 pitches Mike Napoli saw in leading the league last season. And part of that patience is by design. During a six-game stretch not once did the Sox leadoff man swing at one of the first three pitches his first time up, and in seven of the team's first eight games he swung no earlier than the fourth offering.

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If everything remains on schedule, it won't be long before Will Middlebrooks returns from his calf strain. When he's ready, newcomer Ryan Roberts may be expendable - particularly with prospect Garin Cecchini continuing to prove himself at Triple-A. After eight games, he entered Saturday with a .345 batting average and .406 on-base percentage, building on an OBP that was .417 OBP after 287 minor-league games.

The challenge will be defensively. If he can prove himself with the glove, those types of numbers could make him a big-league option at the hot corner should the Sox have a need there later in the year.

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STAT OF THE WEEK: Over the first two turns through their rotation, Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves only allowed a starting pitcher to start an inning after having already thrown at least 90 pitches. Both times it was Jon Lester, who then threw 113 tosses while pitching into the seventh inning on Friday.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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