FORT MYERS, Fla. — Junichi Tazawa challenged the baseball establishment in Japan in 2008 when he signed with the Red Sox. It was a move so unexpected that a special rule was passed to make sure it didn’t happen again.
Tazawa was a star in the semi-professional Japanese Industrial League and sure to be a first-round selection in the Nippon Professional Baseball draft. But the righthander took a three-year, $3.3 million deal with the Red Sox instead.
The NPL quickly ruled that any prospect who spurned the draft in such fashion would face a three-year suspension should he ever try to return to the Japanese league. For Tazawa, going home to finish his career may never be an option.
“I always believed in my decision,” Tazawa said Tuesday. “The Red Sox supported me and I knew they would be there for me the whole time.”
That Tazawa took the right path was never more certain to him than on Jan. 21 when he was introduced to prime minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo and showed him the World Series trophy he helped earn.
“It was an honor to meet him. We talked a little bit about baseball,” Tazawa said. “[United States ambassador] Caroline Kennedy was there, too. It was very special.”
Tazawa, with the help of interpreter C.J. Matsumoto, described presenting Abe with a Red Sox jersey and posing for photographs with the prime minister and Red Sox teammate Koji Uehara. A player who once caused controversy in Japan was now a symbol of national pride.
“I’m proud of him,” Uehara said. “He has come through a lot.”
Tazawa needed only 20 minor league games before making his debut with the Red Sox in 2009. But Tommy John elbow surgery caused him to miss all of the 2010 season and limited his appearances in 2011, with only three of them in the majors.
In 2012, when the Red Sox dropped into last place, Tazawa emerged as a reliable option. That continued last season when he became the primary set-up man for Uehara for much of the season.
“He brings good stuff to the mound every time and he’s a very good strike-thrower,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “A polished pitcher despite not a long track record at the big league level.”
Tazawa struck out 72 over 68⅓ innings last season and walked only 12. A 3.16 earned run average was not reflective of his importance to the team. He pitched more than one inning 11 times and had a 2.81 ERA at Fenway Park.
Tazawa appeared in 13 of the team’s 16 postseason games, allowing one earned run in 7⅓ innings. Tazawa appeared in all three clinching games.
“I think I pitched pretty well in the postseason. But there were ups and downs in the regular season. I want to be more consistent,” Tazawa said. “That is my goal. I know I can be better.”
Tazawa was named the closer in late June after Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey were lost to injury. He allowed two runs in a non-save situation against the Blue Jays June 29, taking a loss. Uehara closed when the next save situation came up.
The Red Sox, Farrell said, saw a “different approach” on the mound that week. A new title seemed to rattle Tazawa.
“That’s where there was a willingness to go to Koji in that spot,” the manager said. “The ninth inning creates a little bit different mind-set for different individuals until they get some repetition in it. We kind of sensed that in some of those outings when he was the de facto closer, and then we made another change.”
Part of the problem, Tazawa said, was the presence of Uehara. At 27, Tazawa is 11 years younger then Uehara and always respectful of that difference. Uehara was a star pitcher in Japan when Tazawa was growing up and had experience closing in the majors. Stepping ahead of him didn’t feel right.
“Koji, he is a great pitcher. I want to get to that level,” Tazawa said. “I just want to contribute to the team in some way. I want to reach higher, but he is the closer.”
Uehara, like some Japanese veterans, is a willing mentor to younger teammates. He has worked with Tazawa on refining his split-finger fastball and spoken to him at length about how to approach hitters.
The two occasionally dine together, especially on the road. For Tazawa, it’s a privilege, particularly given his unusual route to the majors and lack of mentors along the way.
“Both mentally and technically he has helped me a lot. Coming from a player who has accomplished a lot, it gives me confidence,” Tazawa said. “It’s something I can believe and something that will make me better.
“I’m not sure I should call him a friend because he is such a great pitcher. He’s been very nice to me, and he’s easy to talk to. When I am in the bullpen, he helps me a lot.”
Said Farrell: “Koji has been a tremendous teammate to Taz.”
There are downsides. Tazawa said some Red Sox fans have stopped him to ask for an autograph believing he is Uehara.
Uehara chuckled when that was relayed to him.
“He is very young and I am very old,” he said. “Nobody should think Taz is me. Maybe someday he will be even better.”