PORTLAND, Maine – Junichi Tazawa breezed through his first six innings Tuesday night, even though he had a sore throat and would feel more tired than usual after the game. He used 69 pitches and made only one mistake, a fastball up that Binghamton Mets cleanup hitter Lucas Duda belted far over the left-field field fence, near a giant, inflatable L.L. Bean boot.
Tazawa had not pitched past the sixth inning this season for Double A Portland. Sea Dogs pitchers get 85 pitches per game. The team preaches efficiency, and Tazawa had left himself enough pitches for another inning, the seventh. “He earned it,” Portland manager Arnie Beyeler said. “We didn’t even think about it.”
If he continued to pitch as well as he was, the seventh would not have been an issue. But “when I pitch,” Tazawa said through an interpreter, “something happens always.”
Something happened in the seventh, which the Sea Dogs entered with a 3-1 lead. Duda chopped a single through the right side. The next batter doubled. A fly ball drove in Duda. A strikeout and then a single put runners on first and third with two outs. Tazawa had thrown 20 pitches for the inning, 89 for the night.
“I could see the bullpen working,” Tazawa said. “I knew it was going to be my last batter.”
Beyeler chose to leave Tazawa in the game despite his escalating pitch count. Tazawa’s statistics match up with any in the Eastern League — as of this morning, he’s tied for the EL lead in wins (6) and 10th in earned-run average (2.79) — and he has become a leader for Portland’s staff.
“Those are [his] runs, and I don’t want to bring somebody else in there to give up [his] runs,” Beyeler said. “Especially a guy that’s a premier starter-type guy, you know, one of your guys. Same thing with [Josh] Beckett, same thing with [Jon] Lester and those guys. They want to work out of their own jams.”
Earlier in the inning, pitching coach Mike Cather had come out to speak with Tazawa about facing back-to-back lefties with men on base. His message through an interpreter was, Be aggressive. We’re not going to pitch around them. Now, with a second baseman named Jose Coronado coming to bat and Portland leading by a run with a man on third, Cather felt compelled to remain in the dugout.
“If he’s got to get that critical pitch, he knows when,” Cather said. “When trouble is on the rise, he knows when to go to full-throttle mode.”
Said Beyeler: “He’s had runners on third base a few times, and he turns it up a notch. He gets after people. He don’t like those guys scoring on him. He kind of finds another gear.”
Tazawa used his fastball to go ahead in the count, 1-2. Tazawa skipped off the mound after a slider grazed the outside part of the plate, close but not quite strike three. Coronado fouled off a pitch. He took two more balls. On the 96th pitch Tazawa threw, Coronado lofted a fastball to left, a lazy fly that Aaron Bates squeezed.
Tazawa walked off the mound and exchanged fist bumps in the dugout, the longest outing of his American baseball career complete — seven innings, two runs, five hits, no walks, three strikeouts
The performance added to an expectations-defying first year for Tazawa, 22 and in his first year living in America. The batters in Double A, he said, are “much better” than what he faced a season ago pitching in Japan’s Industrial League. Even while making a transition in a new country, Tazawa has matched them. He has 57 strike outs in 61 1/3 innings, far and away the most innings on the team. Only one of his starts could be considered a clunker, when he allowed six runs in 5 2/3 innings April 25. In the seven starts since, he is 5-1 with a 2.03 ERA.
Tazawa’s windup, to which he is making several slight adjustments, looks something like Daisuke Matsuzaka’s — he’s got that small hip wiggle when he takes the ball over his head. The similarities in approach cease there.
“He’s not a nibble guy,” Beyeler said.
As the year has gone on and Tazawa’s command has grown, Tazawa’s fastballs have moved from the belt to the thighs to the knees. Everything starts and hinges upon throwing his fastball for strikes. His repertoire is vast, but his style uncomplicated. “He’s got the six pitches,” Beyeler said. “But he doesn’t throw them.”
On days his starts, Tazawa listens to an iPod, usually the same Japanese song, and keeps to himself. On other days, he blends in. He studies English for three hours a day, four times a week. The players he hangs with most are and Felix Doubront and Chad Rhoades, “a kid from Latin America and a kid from Texas,” Cather said. Teammates have learned Japanese slang and yell out phrases. Cather sometimes walks by Tazawa and a group of teammates chatting and thinks, “How did that topic possibly come about?”
“He’s just another one of the guys,” catcher Mark Wagner said. “There’s never been any awkwardness.”
When asked about how his English is coming along, Tazawa said, “I’m not smart, so it takes time.” Last night, I asked him what pitch he threw on 3-2 to the last batter. While Kiyoshi Otani, an assistant trainer and Tazawa’s translator, started to relay the question, Tazawa said, “fastball.”
Earlier this year, Red Sox director or player development Mike Hazen said, “it’s too hard to say” whether Tazawa will require a full season in Double A given his extraordinary circumstances. His success on the mound and the rapidness of his clubhouse assimilation suggest Tazawa could be prepared for a jump to a new level.
I brought up the notion of Tazawa’s moving to Pawtucket to Cather. It’s not up to him to decide such things, but he’s watched other prospects move up and would have a feel for when a pitcher is ready for a promotion.
“He’s got major league stuff,” Cather said. “I don’t think it hurts him to be here. I don’t think it hurts him to be in Pawtucket. I don’t think it hurts him to be anywhere. I feel like he’s doing the things we’ve laid out. Who’s to say a month worth of it is enough? Is it two months? Is it consistency over 10 starts? That’s not our decision to make, but he’s doing the things he needs to do to continue to get better. Once he does that in the significant amount of time that the organization feels like he needs, then they’re probably going to move him. Until, then, I think he enjoys the team. There’s definitely different challenges day-in and day-out. I don’t think he’s getting bored with it. There’s no rush for me.”
Tazawa, after Tuesday’s start, has one immediate goal in mind.
“Next time, I’m going to finish quick,” he said. “No drama.”