NEW YORK — The Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is certainly not what it once was. That we can all agree on. But for Hirokazu Sawamura, coming out of the bullpen in the seventh inning on Friday night had his emotions bubbling.
His countrymen Hideki Matsui and Masahiro Tanaka were All-Stars with the Yankees. Hiroki Kuroda and Ichiro Suzuki spent time in pinstripes, too. Those are four of the more prominent players to come to the majors from Japan. This wasn’t just any game for the 33-year-old Sawamura.
“It had something going on inside of my heart,” he said.
Whatever that was, flowed through his fingertips. Sawamura struck out five of the seven batters he faced over two scoreless innings in a game the Sox won, 5-1.
Sawamura averaged 96.2 miles-per-hour with his four-seam fastball and got four swing-and-misses from the eight split-finger fastballs he threw. The splitter was the pitch he used to finish off Brett Gardner, DJ LeMahieu, and Gary Sanchez.
The Red Sox bullpen has fit together well behind closer Matt Barnes with righthander Adam Ottavino and lefthander Josh Taylor pitching effectively as set-up men.
Darwinzon Hernandez’s propensity for walks makes him difficult to trust in a high-leverage situation and that is where Sawamura is finding a home. He has allowed one earned run over 8⅓ innings in his last eight appearances, while striking out 14 with five walks.
With each outing — Friday in particular — you can see Sawamura gain confidence in attacking hitters.
“He’s great,” Ottavino said before Saturday’s second game of the series. “He’s done a really nice job transitioning over here and getting comfortable. He’s definitely one of the guys [in the bullpen].
“His pitching overall has been pretty good. He’s got nasty stuff and throws hard. His splitter is probably the hardest in the league. Just an interesting pitcher.”
Sawamura throws his splitter 34 percent of the time. Among relievers, only Phillies closer Héctor Neris (53 percent) throws it more often.
An effective split dives at the plate and works like a changeup. It was a pitch Koji Uehara used with devastating effectiveness during his run as the Sox’ closer.
“A split is great against both sides, righties and lefties,” Ottavino said. “That’s a great secondary [pitch] to have because it doesn’t pigeonhole you in a certain matchup. It’s effective against everybody.
“His split in particular is really hard. He throws it 91-93. Not too many guys are throwing a split at that speed. Automatically that makes him unique and any time you’re a little bit unique in this game it gives you an advantage.”
Sawamura averages 95.7 mph with his four-seam fastball and 91.5 with the split. That differential is what carved up the Yankees on Friday.
He can go up with one fastball and down with another. It has led to opponents swinging and missing at 46 percent of his splitters.
“Each team has different characteristics. What I really value is my feeling in each outing,” Sawamura said. “Sometimes I use the slider to get ahead. It really depends on the situation.”
Sawamura’s initial success demonstrates the value of casting a wide net for talent. He was demoted to the minors by the Yomiuri Giants last season then traded to the China Lotte Marines. Sawamura regained his form with Chiba Lotte and the Sox signed him just before spring training started for two years and $3 million with a $3 million team option for 2023.
They trusted their scouting reports and took a low-cost chance. Now Alex Cora has a pitcher he can trust in a tight spot.
“His best is in front of him for sure,” Ottavino said.