08/22/09 9:20 PM ET
Tazawa wave of the future?
Righty shows Japanese pitchers will have impact in MLB
Even with their most publicized Japanese pitcher -- Daisuke Matsuzaka -- missing 87 games in two stays on the disabled list, the Red Sox have a reserve supply of pitchers from Japan. And Japan, for purposes of this discussion, is not only the Land of the Rising Sun, but also the Land of the Decreasing Earned Run Average.
You know about the two veteran Japanese relievers on the Red Sox. From the left side is Hideki Okajima, who is enjoying his third consecutive highly effective season in Boston. From the right side is Takashi Saito, who had already established himself as a top-shelf closer in three seasons with the Dodgers, before coming to the Red Sox this year and repeating his success, primarily in a setup role.
But onto the national, international, global and possibly galactic stage on Saturday strode yet another Japanese pitcher in the employ of the Boston franchise. That was right-hander Junichi Tazawa, at 23 a mere youngster compared to his countrymen on the Red Sox's staff, but being asked to accomplish some of the most critical work of the 2009 season.
Saturday was just the third start of Tazawa's Major League career, but it came at a crucial intersection of Boston's season. After a blissful 8-0 run against the Yankees earlier in the season, the Red Sox had lost five consecutive games to their archrival and had fallen 7 1/2 games behind in the American League East. Not only that, the Red Sox had surrendered 20 runs to the Bronx Bombers on Friday night.
Into this highly pressurized situation stepped Tazawa on Saturday afternoon at Fenway Park. He emerged with six shutout innings, and his team subsequently left Fenway with a completely necessary and totally satisfying 14-1 victory.
With A.J. Burnett starting for New York, this initially did not appear to be a game that the Boston side was supposed to win by 13 runs. Burnett was 5-1 lifetime against Boston. Tazawa had made a relief appearance at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 7, but it wasn't particularly encouraging. He gave up a two-run walk-off homer to Alex Rodriguez in the 15th inning.
Then there was the issue of the 23-hit pounding the Yankees had put on the Sox on Friday night. It might have seemed a tad intimidating.
"We were thinking about sending [Tazawa] home early so he wouldn't have to watch," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said with a smile.
Not to worry. Tazawa was not untouchable, giving up eight hits over six innings. But with runners on base, he persistently made the pitches he needed to make, against, as Francona noted, "a lineup that is dangerous on bad days.
"He executed a lot of pitches, especially when they had runners on base," the manager said. "I think his feel is phenomenal. He's poised beyond his experience, that's for sure."
Through an interpreter, Tazawa was understated about this very significant outing.
"From last night, I knew their offense was very good, so I just took the catcher's lead today and tried not to throw the ball outside of the strike zone," Tazawa said. "I didn't allow runs and tried to locate my pitches on the good corners, which I could today."
If imitation remains the sincerest form of flattery, other clubs will take increased notice of the Red Sox's success and the number of East Asian pitchers operating in North America will continue to grow. Boston has had six Japanese play for them. In the American League, only the Mariners have had as many Japanese players, although Ichiro Suzuki, headed for the Hall of Fame, is in a category by himself. In the Majors, only the Mets have had more Japanese players. But nobody has had the simultaneous concentration of successful Japanese pitching that the Red Sox have now, even without Matsuzaka.
Tazawa, of course, did not follow the traditional route of Japanese players to North American baseball. He informed teams in the Japanese equivalent of the Major Leagues that he did not wish to be drafted by them, preferring instead to go directly into American baseball. His departure understandably upset Japanese baseball officials, who thought they had not only a gentlemen's agreement but an understanding with the Major Leagues that Japanese players would not be signed by American teams under these circumstances.
In the Japanese leagues, a player typically qualifies for free agency after nine years. Japanese players can go through the "posting" system, in which Major League teams essentially buy the rights to negotiate with players from Japanese teams. In the case of a frontline Japanese star such as Matsuzaka, this cost the Red Sox $51 million in addition to his $52 million contract.
Concerns that veteran Japanese starters come to the U.S. after being overworked are, obviously, not in play in Tazawa's case. So while there may be more American teams trying to sign more Japanese pitchers, there may also be more American teams specifically targeting young Japanese pitchers.
Whether Tazawa is the wave of the future, as a Japanese player beginning his professional career in America, there is no reason to doubt that Japanese players, particularly Japanese pitchers, will continue to have a larger impact in this hemisphere.
It tells you something that the Red Sox -- in late August, in a run for the postseason, needing to break the momentum of their biggest rivals -- assigned a Japanese pitcher to the task of checking the Bombers' imposing lineup. It tells you even more that the Japanese pitcher in question was 23 years old, making the third Major League start of his life.
Michael Bauman is a national columnist of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.