Friday, April 18, 2014
DETROIT — It was a pressure situation. Runner on third and Junichi Tazawa needed a strikeout.
Maybe you remember the game. It was Tazawa’s pro debut in the United States in the Portland Sea Dogs’ opener at Hadlock Field in 2009.
He faced another jam Tuesday.
“A little different lineup,” Arnie Beyeler pointed out.
Beyeler, the Sea Dogs’ manager in 2009, is now the first-base coach for the Red Sox. So he was again in the dugout watching Tazawa work under pressure.
Only instead of minor league batters, Tazawa was staring down at Miguel Cabrera in the batter’s box.
“He turned it up again,” Beyeler said.
Four fastballs, all between 94 and 95 mph, on the outside corner or just off.
“No bigger moment in his career,” Manager John Farrell said the next day.
Farrell was the Red Sox pitching coach in 2009 when the Red Sox signed Tazawa, a 22-year-old free agent from Japan, to a $3.5 million contract. He had no pro experience and was sent to Portland.
But injuries depleted the Red Sox. Tazawa was summoned to the majors.
His first appearance on Aug. 7: the bottom of the 14th inning in a 0-0 game at Yankee Stadium. Tazawa got three outs in the 14th. Derek Jeter led off the 15th with a single and with two outs, Alex Rodriguez homered.
The Red Sox were still high on Tazawa, but his career got sidetracked with Tommy John surgery the next year.
That surgery has made Tazawa stronger.
“The biggest thing that stands out is the way the rehab from the surgery has almost increased his arm strength,” Farrell said. “He’s always been a good strike thrower. He pitches composed. And he has an increase in velocity.
“In Taz’s case, we had to rebuild confidence at times. In shorter stints he feels pretty good about himself.”
Tazawa had a tendency of giving up big hits, but the Red Sox want him to keep attacking with his fastball and split-fingered fastball.”
It’s all a matter of confidence.
Flash back to 2009. Tazawa was pitching against the Binghamton Mets and slugger Lucas Duda hit him hard in his first at-bat.
In Duda’s second at-bat, Tazawa wouldn’t throw a fastball. Beyeler and pitching coach Mike Cather approached Tazawa in the dugout.
“We talked to him through an interpreter,” said Cather, now a pitching instructor with the Padres. “The translation was ‘I did not have a positive feeling about this guy hitting.’
“Arnie and I laughed and told him he had to throw Duda all fastballs until he felt positive about his experience.”
Tazawa had to learn to trust his stuff. And that faith was essential Tuesday when Cabrera came to bat with one out and runners on first and third, Boston up 1-0.
After Tazawa threw the first strike, he had one result in mind.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m going to get a strikeout,’ ” Tazawa told reporters after Tuesday’s game.
And he came through, pumping his fist, his face animated; quite a change from his usually calm demeanor.
“It was nice to see the emotion after the strikeout,” said Cather, who watched the game from the Dominican Republic.
“I’ve seen Taz throw several times this year. He has matured into a confident, impact player on the largest stage.”
On that smaller stage, in Portland, too. About that runner on third base in the 2009 Sea Dogs’ opener, he was stranded. Tazawa recorded two strikeouts and a broken-bat popup.
The start of a building process, from Hadlock Field to a clutch strikeout in the American League Championship Series.
Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or: