FORT MYERS, Fla. — Junichi Tazawa pitched in six games for the Red Sox in 2009 and didn’t look like a future star. He was technically sound for a 23-year-old with little professional experience and threw several pitches for strikes. But there wasn’t one pitch that set the righthander apart.
In his major league debut, Tazawa entered a scoreless game at Yankee Stadium in the 14th inning. He survived one inning then allowed a deep two-run, walkoff home run by Alex Rodriguez.
“That seems like a long time ago,” Tazawa said. “A lot has happened.”
Tazawa reported to spring training the following year with discomfort in his elbow that proved to be a torn ligament. Tommy John surgery was performed in April.
Tazawa missed the 2010 season and was held back in spring training the following year because he was still recovering. His first game wasn’t until May 20 in the Single A South Atlantic League.
Hit hard as a starter, Tazawa was put in the bullpen by July. He improved gradually that season and was called up in September. But Tazawa was tentative, unwilling to trust his repaired elbow.
“I had never had surgery before. It was something I had to get used to,” he said. “It was like learning how to pitch again.”
A different pitcher showed up last season. Tazawa had a 2.55 earned run average in 25 games for Triple A Pawtucket, striking out 56 and walking 17 over 42⅓
The Red Sox called up Tazawa briefly in April, then for good in July, outside of one day when he was demoted for roster management reasons.
Tazawa was even better in the majors. Over 44 innings, he allowed 37 hits with five walks and 45 strikeouts. His fastball, once an average pitch, averaged 92 miles per hour, and jumped to 95 and 96 on occasion. Even better, he maintained his command of the pitch.
Among pitchers with at least 40 innings, he had the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the majors.
Pitchers who have Tommy John surgery often experience an increase in velocity, the result of spending months exercising their arm and building up the muscles around their elbow. Tazawa also benefited from a change in role. As a reliever, he felt more at ease throwing harder, knowing he would only pitch an inning or two.
“It’s hard to say what it was,” general manager Ben Cherington said. “Maybe a combination of both factors. But he showed us a lot last year. He opened a lot of eyes.”
In what was an otherwise dismal end of the season for the Red Sox, Tazawa allowed one earned run on three hits over his final 14 innings, with one walk and 18 strikeouts. Along with the play of third baseman Will Middlebrooks, Tazawa’s emergence was one of the few positive developments for the Sox in 2012.
“He was the best pitcher we had when the season ended,” catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “Taz was blowing people away.”
Tazawa asked interpreter C.J. Matsumoto to help him with an interview. But he nodded as questions were asked and used some English phrases to answer. This is his fifth season with the Red Sox and he understands his second language well.
Tazawa came to the Red Sox from a semiprofessional industrial league at a young age, electing to pursue his dreams of pitching in the majors right away rather than playing in Nippon Professional Baseball first.
He has grown up in the Red Sox system and is friendly with a number of players in the organization. The coaches know him well, having watched him develop.
Sox manager John Farrell was with the organization as the major league pitching coach when Tazawa made his debut in 2009. He did not expect Tazawa to turn into the pitcher he has.
“He’s come back with almost different stuff,” Farrell said. “I don’t know that anyone projected him to be a mid-90s type of guy. He’s been that since the second half of last year and not sacrificed command or location. His strikeout-to-walk totals are outstanding. He does all the little things inside the game that really show up in those later innings.”
Farrell thinks that in addition to the surgery and pitching out of the bullpen, Tazawa used his athletic ability to increase his velocity.
“He’s able to channel that adrenaline in such a good way that his stuff really played up,” the manager said. “He really emerged as the season went on. He’s got weapons.”
Tazawa also has minor league options. His performance last season showed he belongs in the Red Sox bullpen to start the season. But with 10 pitchers vying for seven spots, the Sox could conceivably send Tazawa to Pawtucket to maintain some flexibility.
“I want to be on the roster for Opening Day. That is a goal of mine,” Tazawa said. “I’m not expecting anything; I know I have to pitch well.”
Tazawa’s ability to throw strikes makes him a good candidate to pitch in the eighth inning. Andrew Bailey and Koji Uehara could fill that role, too. Daniel Bard, who held that job in 2011, would like it back.
“There are a lot of big arms in this bullpen,” closer Joel Hanrahan said. “I’ve only seen Taz throw a few times but everybody seems to be talking about him.”
Rodriguez, who ruined Tazawa’s debut, faced him on five occasions last season. He was hitless and struck out three times. The new Tazawa has way of doing that.Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.