BOSTON -- When the Red Sox signed Junichi Tazawa out of Japan's Industrial League nearly four years ago, nobody quite knew what to expect. Up until then, nearly every Japanese player who came to the United States had played professional ball.
Tazawa has been proving of late that the Red Sox did well by being ahead of the curve. In a second half which has had precious few good storylines, Tazawa has become an invaluable member of Boston's bullpen.
He was marvelous in Tuesday night's 4-3 win against the Yankees, firing 1 2/3 scoreless innings and striking out three.
Tazawa has pitched 27 games for the Red Sox this season, posting a 1.54 ERA. Over 35 innings, he has just five walks and 35 strikeouts.
It is clear that Tazawa is no longer tentative after having Tommy John surgery in 2010.
"In Spring Training, he was still cautious with his arm," said manager Bobby Valentine. "He couldn't throw his breaking ball, nor his fastball, with the kind of effort that he wanted. He was always holding back just five or 10 percent, according to him. Now he's not holding back, he's throwing 96 and 97 and he has impeccable control and three pitches. I think moving forward he's going to be a very good pitcher on a championship team."
At one point, the Red Sox were developing Tazawa on a starter's path, but he seems to have found a niche in the bullpen.
"This is my first full season since coming back from Tommy John, so my goal this season was to stay healthy and pitch a full season," Tazawa said. "I've been able to accomplish that so far. Moving forward, I'm not really going to expect to be in the rotation or in the bullpen. I just want to make sure I'm healthy and pitch well, and I think everything else will work itself out."
Because of his time managing in Japan, Valentine knew of Tazawa before he became the Red Sox's skipper.
"He was unique," Valentine said. "He was the case study that caused quite an uproar. When I was there, he was going to be my number one draft choice there. Instead, out of the amateur industrial league, he signed a professional contract here. I think the first one to ever do it, so he is unique."