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After two years, Junichi Tazawa completes the long road back to the majors

09.13.11 at 1:00 am ET
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It has been a long road back for Junichi Tazawa.

The 25-year-old will be called back up to the major leagues on Tuesday, putting him in position to throw a pitch in the major leagues for the first time since Sept. 4, 2009, a span of more than two years. Tommy John surgery ended his 2010 season before it even started, and marked the beginning of a process that pitchers dread.

Tazawa, whom the Sox signed as an amateur out of Japan to a three-year, $3.3 million deal in December 2008, said that entering the surgery, he was worried about how much time he would have to spend away from the game.

‘€œI was able to overcome those fear and worries, and I learned patience,’€ he said through a translator last month.

The trait would be necessary, not just during a 2010 season in which Tazawa was limited to rehabbing, but also this year, as he slowly moved to regain his form in games. Some pitchers return from Tommy John with improved velocity out of the chute, a byproduct of the comprehensive rehab process that can lead to comprehensive strength gains.

But Tazawa followed a different ‘€“ albeit similarly common ‘€“ pattern. When he started pitching in games this year, first in extended spring training in Florida, and then on his first rehab assignment in High-A Salem in May, his fastball velocity was regularly in the mid-80s, well short of the low-90s velocity (topping out at 94 mph) that he showed before surgery.

That diminished velocity, in turn, led Tazawa to struggle. He allowed 12 runs in his first two rehab outings with Salem. However, after those initially poor outings, he turned the corner. He allowed one run in his next 11 2/3 innings, and his velocity started to creep back into the 90s.

‘€œI just couldn’€™t swing my arm like before.’€ Tazawa said. ‘€œAs long as I resolved that problem, I felt pretty good.’€

From there, his performance also rounded back into the form that established him as one of the top pitching prospects in the Red Sox organization in 2009. After he was promoted from Salem to Double-A Portland in June, he allowed six runs and retired just two batters in his first outing, but then had a 2.42 ERA in his next seven appearances for the Sea Dogs.

That, in turn, led to an August promotion to Pawtucket, where Tazawa had a 2.51 ERA while striking out 19 and walking just three in eight regular season appearances and then retired all five batters he faced ‘€“ three by strikeout ‘€“ in the International League playoffs.

Tazawa credited his return to form to a good physical therapist, conditioning coach and athletic trainers at Ft. Myers, who helped Tazawa regain ‘€œelbow-joint range-of-motion.’€ Pawtucket pitching coach Rich Sauveur agreed.

‘€œThe Boston Red Sox have taken very, very good care of him,’€ Sauveur said Saturday. ‘€œThey brought him along slowly, which is I think the best way to go about this. You don’€™t need to rush anybody when you have this kind of operation.’€

While Tommy John surgery may require rebuilding physical strength and fine-tuning mechanics, Sauveur said the biggest hurdle for a pitcher is mental, something that explained, at least in part, both command difficulties and the diminished velocity that Tazawa featured at the start of his rehab.

‘€œIt has a lot to do with trusting himself, trusting how his arm is feeling,’€ Sauveur said. ‘€œAny time any of these pitchers have an operation, they need to trust what’€™s been done them. It’€™s a scary situation, to know that your arm’€™s been worked on and they’€™ve done some work in there and you don’€™t know what’€™s going on inside there. You’€™re the only one who can feel what’€™s going on, so trust is a big factor in that.’€

Evidently, Tazawa rediscovered that trust ‘€“ something that started showing in a diverse arsenal that included a fastball that was typically 89-93 mph, a slider and splitter that were good enough to get swings and misses and, perhaps most importantly, the command of all of those pitches that allowed Tazawa to race through Double-A and Triple-A on his way to the majors in his first pro season in 2009.

‘€œHe’€™s getting swings and misses. The slider’€™s coming back. The split’€™s coming back. The life, finish and command are coming back. That’€™s the big separator,’€ said Red Sox farm director Mike Hazen. ‘€œHe’€™s impressive. That’€™s what he was doing before he got hurt.’€

And now, Tazawa will be back where he was before he got hurt, a reward for his patience and persistence.

Alex Speier contributed to this report.

Read More: junichi tazawa, Pawtucket Red Sox, Portland Sea Dogs, salem red sox
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