Junichi Tazawa Has Evolved Into Reliable Reliever After Long Road From Tommy John Surgery

Junichi Tazawa Has Evolved Into Reliable Reliever After Long Road From Tommy John SurgeryBOSTON — Junichi Tazawa just wanted his health back.

After missing the 2010 season and the majority of 2011 — as a result of Tommy John surgery — Tazawa entered spring training this season hoping to last a full year without any setbacks.

He's received his wish and much more. Despite a few trips between Boston and Pawtucket, Tazawa has developed into a key piece of the Red Sox bullpen, striking out 35 batters while posting a 1.54 ERA through 35 innings.

"He's absolutely amazing," Red Sox closer Andrew Bailey said. "Some of the situations he's come into and getting outs like [in Tuesday's win] have been huge. He's putting together a great year. It's hard to do what he does, coming in and getting out of some messes."

Tuesday's 4-3 victory over the Yankees was the perfect example. After Jon Lester surrendered two runs in the sixth inning, Tazawa entered the equation and struck out Nick Swisher and Alex Rodriguez in back-to-back at-bats.

And Tazawa flummoxed them with pure gas. He unleashed a 95 mph fastball to freeze Rodriguez, a pitch that demonstrated how healthy his surgically repaired elbow has become.

"It's definitely at least where it was before and I actually feel stronger," Tazawa said through an interpreter. "I'm making the ball go where I want to. The fastball might be even better than it was before."

His breaking ball has become quite devastating as well — a far cry from what it was back in spring training. In Fort Myers, Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine noticed that Tazawa was still apprehensive about throwing his secondary pitches.

Over the course of the season, he developed more trust in his elbow and has evolved into Valentine's first option to right the ship against teams like the Yankees.

"He was always holding back just five or 10 percent, according to him," Valentine said of spring training. "Now he’s not holding back, he’s throwing 96 and 97 [with his fastball] and he has impeccable control and three pitches. I think moving forward, he’s going to be a very good pitcher on a championship team."

But Valentine thinks it'll be as a starter, not a reliever. Heading into spring training, Tazawa was eyeing a spot in the Red Sox starting rotation, but fell out of contention early on.

Moving forward, he won't be picky. He'll just settle for his health and the other benefits that come along with it.

"I'm not really going to expect to be in the rotation or in the bullpen," Tazawa said. "I just want to make sure I'm healthy and pitch well and I think everything else will work itself out."

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