Friday, August 7, 2009

Junichi Tazawa just one of the guys

PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- Everyone wants to hear what Junichi Tazawa has to say.

About an hour before Thursday night's game between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Norfolk Tides, the 23-year-old righty and translator Masaki Kubota were involved in a conversation with a reporter in the middle of the McCoy Stadium clubhouse. But a handful of PawSox teammates -- among them pitcher Rocky Cherry, catcher Mark Wagner and infielders Chris Carter, Jeff Natale and Ivan Ochoa -- began to edge closer and closer to try to hear what the highly touted prospect was saying.

The first question was about the difference between Double-A and Triple-A. The answer was about the way he's had to adjust the way he sequences his pitches and the way he can't just use his stuff to overpower hitters anymore.

"At Double-A, at the beginning of the season, the coach said, 'You can pitch fastball and curveball,'" Tazawa said through Kubota. "It is part of growing up, part of the process. But here is more like preparing for the big leagues."

Kubota tried to continue the answer, to relay what Tazawa had said about the process of learning to pitch one step below the major leagues, but he couldn't hold back the giggles as the group edged closer and closer, their expressions of eager attention growing more and more exaggerated.

The translator finally gave up when Natale casually dropped the towel he'd been wearing around his waist. Tazawa, too, started laughing uncontrollably as Kubota shoved the completely naked Natale away and toward his locker.

If the episode demonstrated nothing else, it was that Tazawa, language barrier and all, really has become one of the guys.

He hasn't had much of a chance to become assimilated to American culture. He spends most of his time at the ballpark and thus "did nothing like shopping or anything," Kubota said. "But he needs to learn English and communicate with his teammates, and this is challenging right now."

(Most of the English he's learned from the other players in the clubhouse, as you can imagine, is not fit for print.)

The promotion from Double-A Portland to Triple-A Pawtucket actually helped with that process because he had a chance to reunite with some of the players who he'd first met at major-league camp during spring training in Fort Myers. Wagner spent most of the first half of the season at Portland, too, but players like Carter and Ochoa and pitchers Michael Bowden, Francisco Cabrera, Hunter Jones, Marcus McBeth and Billy Traber have spent most, if not all, of their season with Pawtucket.

"He knows the big-league guys and the Triple-A guys, but when he's going to Double-A, nobody knows (him)," Kubota said. "But most of the Triple-A guys know him from big-league camp in the spring, so this is good for him."

Said Wagner, "That's a testament to how relaxed he's getting and how comfortable everybody is making him feel. Before, he was just quiet, sitting next to the translator, and now, he'll joke around and (chat) with the guys, and it's fun because we all have a good time with it."

(Wagner and Tazawa challenge each other on the Nintendo DS during long bus rides. Tazawa dominates when they play the Japanese baseball game he brought with him, but Wagner will "whip up on him a little bit" when it comes to Mario Kart.)

It helps that the righty can really, really pitch.

He had a 2.57 ERA in 18 starts at Portland earlier this year before the Red Sox promoted him, and he allowed three earned runs in 11 1/3 innings (good for a 2.38 ERA) in his first two starts at Pawtucket. So far this season, he has 94 strikeouts and just 27 walks in 109 1/3 innings pitched.

That comes on the heels of a spring training in which he allowed just one earned run in nine innings with the big-league club, striking out 10 and walking just one in the process.

Though he throws righthanded, he was particularly devastating against lefties (.213 batting average against) while he was at Portland. He did have a better strikeout-to-walk ratio (almost 6-to-1) against righties than against lefties, and he's seen his splits turn the way you might expect -- lefties are hitting .300 off him while righties are hitting .056 -- since his promotion to Pawtucket.

But he's everything changes at Fenway Park next week if and when he takes over for the DFA'ed John Smoltz in the Red Sox rotation. That will give him his first chance to showcase his repertoire -- like Clay Buchholz, his changeup and his curveball are his best pitches -- against major-league hitters.

"He's really learning how to control those pitches and when to use them in what spots," Wagner said. "Before, it was just kind of like, 'OK, we're going to throw this because we haven't really done it,' and it was good enough that he could get away with it. But at this level, he's really refining. Now there's a purpose behind why we're doing this. Before, his stuff was good enough just to overmatch batters, but now that we're here, he's starting to sequence it."

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