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Junichi Tazawa’s Blistering Trail to the Majors

08.07.09 at 4:22 pm ET

A couple of Japanese terms became popular on Boston’s Double-A affiliate this year. Portland players took to saying, ‘€œsaiko,’€ or good job, following pitcher Junichi Tazawa’s outings, and ‘€œegui’€ to describe a particularly ‘€œsick’€ pitch.

Tazawa gave plenty of opportunities to use both terms. With Double-A Portland, he went 9-5 with a 2.57 ERA, earning a role as the starting pitcher for the World Team in the All-Star Futures Game. Shortly thereafter, the Sox further recognized his excellent work by giving him a promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket, where he made two starts and, despite going 0-2, forged a 2.38 ERA.

That further reinforced a perception that Tazawa has been creating since he arrived in Red Sox spring training camp, namely that he entered his first professional season with the polish of someone ready to pitch in the majors. That notion gained its ultimate confirmation on Friday, when the Sox called up Tazawa from Pawtucket to join the major-league club in New York.

Tazawa will be available in the bullpen in New York on Friday. His role beyond that, manager Terry Francona said, has not yet been determined.

Tazawa has more than delivered on the promise that convinced the Sox to sign him to a three-year, $3.3 million major-league contract in December. He features a sophisticated four-pitch mix (fastball, curve, slider, splitter) that makes it hard to believe, at times, that he is dealing with the transition to professional baseball, as well as a new culture on and off the field.

‘€œIt’€™s a great combination,’€ Portland pitching coach Mike Cather said recently. ‘€œ(His performance) has been steady, but I think that the progress of the plan that he’€™s taking out there from game-to-game has gotten much more defined: setting up hitters, usage of his stuff, execution of his fastball and fastball command, how he attacks the hitter.’€

After a dominant spring training (1.00 ERA, 10 strikeouts, 9 innings), Tazawa was assigned to Double-A Portland, where he showed constant growth on the mound, something that continued as he moved up to Triple-A. For now, Tazawa typically works with an 88-92 mph fastball, but sometimes he touches 93 and 94 mph, and over the long term, the Sox believe that he might be able to hold that velocity as he benefits from a strengthening program.

“In the future, yes, I think there’€™s definitely a chance this guy’€™s going to throw a bit harder,” Sox farm director Mike Hazen said last month. “Whatever his future holds at the major league level, there’€™s a chance that he throws hard but now that’€™s what we’€™ve seen, 88-92 up to 93 or 94.”

Because Tazawa is in his first pro season, and is coming from a league that hasn’t offered a clear precedent for a transition to professional ball in the U.S., mapping out the duration of his season is a bit tricky. He assumed a significant workload (described as anywhere from 150-180 innings) while pitching for Eneos of a Japanese amateur industrial league last year, and so the Sox have long considered the possibility of using him as a reliever later this year (likely in a September call-up) to manage his innings. Some of the decision will be based on how he performs in strength tests.

For now, however, he is at 110 innings, and so the Sox feel comfortable with having him continue to add innings either in the rotation (where he has spent the entire season, and where the organization believes he has a long-term future) or the bullpen for the short term.

‘€œHe may get some innings as a reliever, but we’€™ll see. Right now, nothing’€™s really been mapped out,’€ Hazen said a few weeks ago, before Tazawa was promoted to Pawtucket. ‘€œWe do feel pretty comfortable that he’€™s worked to a certain threshold and can hold a starter’€™s log for the season’€¦I think we certainly see him as a starting pitcher but in the short term he may end up pitching out of the bullpen at some point in September or thereabouts.’€

Though Tazawa’€™s strikeout numbers are down in Triple-A (he has struck out 4.8 per nine innings in his two starts, down from 8.1 per nine innings with Portland), he has held opponents to a .184 average in his two starts. Particularly noteworthy has been Tazawa’€™s success against right-handers, who are 1-for-18 (.056) against him in two starts for Pawtucket.

Pawtucket has been just the latest evidence that Tazawa seems unphased by any transition. He was very popular among his teammates in Portland (with whom he made a concerted effort to connect even though he still requires a translator to do so), he has adopted in full the Red Sox’ shoulder and strengthening programs as well as the organization’s outline for between-starts routines, and after having pitched exclusively out of the stretch while with Eneos, it took the pitcher just a couple of starts at the beginning of the season to become comfortable pitching out of the windup, thereby reducing the stress on his shoulder in his delivery. He became accustomed, too, to an American baseball that Tazawa described as “more slippery” than the ball used in Japan.

Asked at the Futures Game whether anything about his success in his first professional season had surprised him, Tazawa’s answer was blunt.

“No,” he said. “I just want to learn everything about American-style baseball.”

Now, he will have a new opportunity to learn, this time at the major-league level. Tazawa said at Yankee Stadium that his biggest concern is the difference in the baseball between the minors (which is manufactured in China) and the majors (Costa Rica). The next phase of the pitcher’s apprenticeship will be closely watched on two continents.

Rob Bradford contributed from New York.

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