Junichi Tazawa lives close enough to Fenway Park to occasionally walk there. Along the way, he admires the old brick buildings that remind him of Yokohama, his home in Japan.
Nothing can ever replace home in his heart, but Tazawa is more comfortable in Boston than he ever expected to be.
“I feel close to this city,” he said. “In a way, it’s my home, too.”
Tazawa, who turned 29 over the weekend, has been with the Red Sox longer than every player on the roster outside of David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, and Clay Buchholz. He’s also one of the team’s best players, too, pitching at a high level since joining the bullpen in 2012.
Tazawa was a key member of the 2013 championship team, appearing in 71 games during the regular season and 13 more in the playoffs. He improved his individual performance when the team struggled last season, and this year has been even better.
Tazawa has a 1.46 ERA in 27 games. Opponents have hit .193 against him and he is averaging 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings.
For four seasons now, he has been one of the more durable relievers in the game and by almost any statistical measure, one of the best. In his last 15 games, Tazawa has allowed one run over 13 innings and struck out 14.
“I’m a huge fan of his,” said Sox manager John Farrell. “We understand how good he has been. But I think he’s underrated within the game.”
Tazawa is deserving of a spot in the All-Star Game, something he acknowledges is a goal. His teammate and good friend Koji Uehara was selected to the game last season.
“Taz has been great,” Uehara said. “But he has been great for a while. I hope people see what he has done.”
With the assistance of translator C.J. Matsumoto, Tazawa reflected on his nontraditional journey to this pinnacle.
Tazawa grew up idolizing Yutaka Ohno, a lefthanded pitcher with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, and wanted to play baseball. Tazawa pitched in high school but did not get to the mound when the team advanced to the prestigious Koshien Tournament in 2003.
After graduating from high school and getting passed over in the Nippon Professional Baseball draft, Tazawa played four seasons in Japan’s semi-professional Industrial League. He had a job with Eneos Oil, working in their corporate offices while pitching mostly in relief for their team.
Tazawa performed so well that he was sure to be drafted in 2008. He instead signed with the Red Sox for $3.3 million. Tazawa has since been blackballed from playing for any national teams. That kept him from working with Ohno, Japan’s pitching coach in the World Baseball Classic.
“I have no regrets,” Tazawa said. “Winning the World Series, that was the purpose for me coming over here. I was happy I was able to contribute to that.
“And for the team that I used to play for in Japan, I was happy to give back and justify that team giving me a chance. I understand my complex background and that I might not be able to play for Japan. But I can’t change that.
“If I went back without the accolades, I’d have more guilt. So I feel good about that. All I can do is put up the numbers and hope I can get selected [to the national team]. I would love to play.”
Eneos Oil is now one of the corporate sponsors of the Red Sox, and Tazawa appears in commercials for the company.
Because he spent four years working his way up through the minors, Tazawa became immersed in a different culture than he experienced in Japan.
He enjoys hip-hop music now and the reggaeton beats his Latin American teammates play. Former Sox outfielder Josh Reddick, a good old boy from Georgia, became a close friend when they played for Double A Portland.
“Taz is good people,” Reddick said. “I used to locker next to him and we would communicate as best we could. When you play baseball, you can figure out a way. I’m thrilled to see him pitching so well. But I hate facing him.”
Once he got to the United States, Tazawa encountered other roadblocks.
He made his major league debut against the Yankees in 2009, coming into a game in the 14th inning in New York. The first batter he had to face was Hideki Matsui, the legendary Japanese slugger.
“I looked up and there was Matsui,” said Tazawa. “I had grown up watching him. I was surprised to be on the mound. I had to step back and just try and do my best.”
Matsui lined out, and Tazawa got four other outs that night before Alex Rodriguez hit a long game-winning home run. Tazawa won two games as a starter that season but needed Tommy John elbow surgery six months later. When he returned, the Red Sox put him in the bullpen.
Tazawa has still not abandoned the idea of starting but accepts that being in the bullpen works. He throws a four-seam fastball that sits in the mid-90s, a split-finger fastball, and a breaking pitch that is more curveball than slider.
“Japanese players think the minor leagues in the United States are a bad thing, but for me it was priceless,” Tazawa said. “I had a good support system and learned a lot.”
Now Uehara, 11 years older, is a mentor.
“We’re very close,” said Tazawa. “But best friends is probably not the way to put it. I have great respect for him. He has been so good in his career; he gives me a lot of advice. He is somebody I look up to.”
On days off, Tazawa might get dinner with Uehara. He likes Gyu-Kaku, a Japanese BBQ restaurant in Brookline, or Ittoku, a Japanese tapas place in Brighton.
“It’s not just sushi,” Tazawa said.
In the offseason, he lives back at home in Yokohama with his parents. It’s a modest, low-profile lifestyle.
“My life didn’t change too much because we won the World Series,” Tazawa said. “I don’t have a specific goal or numbers in mind. I just want to continue contributing to this team. Sometimes fans in Boston see me and say, ‘Hey, Koji.’ So I still have some work to do.”
Asked what he wants people to know about him, Tazawa smiled.
“I may not look like I’m very emotional on the mound, but I am,” he said. “I’m not always calm; there is nervousness. But I always think that if I get hit around, it’s the manager’s fault for putting me out there.”