Being a middle reliever/setup man often is thankless. Some bullpen stalwarts, like Junichi Tazawa, are OK with that reality.
Tazawa, who has been a key cog in the Boston Red Sox’s bullpen the last three seasons, takes pride in his work. The right-hander might not know whether he’s going to pitch in the sixth, seventh or eighth inning on a given day, but he can rest assured he’ll be placed in plenty of high-leverage situations.
“I don’t feel I have to be a closer to prove that I’m a good pitcher,” Tazawa recently told FanGraphs’ David Laurila through translator C.J. Matsumoto. “There are a lot of important outs in the middle innings. I understand what the pressure is like being a closer, trying to finish the game off, but there are situations where getting a crucial out in the sixth, seventh or eighth inning can be a turnaround in the momentum.
“I like my job. I know people don’t think much of middle relievers, but I feel there is a lot of significance there.”
Tazawa posted a 2.86 ERA in 71 appearances spanning 63 innings in 2014. He posted a 3.16 ERA in 71 innings over 68 1/3 innings in 2013 before then thriving in October as the Red Sox won their third World Series title in 10 years.
Much of Tazawa’s success is a product of being ready, mentally and physically, whenever his number is called.
“I would say that it’s more taxing mentally,” Tazawa told Laurila of his role. “It’s not easy to not know, but preparing with uncertainty is part of being a middle reliever. That’s a significant part of it. I know I probably won’t be pitching three games in a row, but I have to be mentally prepared at all times.”
The Red Sox signed Tazawa as an international free agent in 2008 with an eye toward him being a starter. He missed all of the 2010 season following Tommy John surgery, though, and the Red Sox since have found a perfect role for the Japanese hurler.
“I would be able to build up the endurance to be a starter,” said Tazawa, who is set to hit free agency following the 2016 season. “But I feel that I owe this team a lot. They stuck with me through the hard times — the injury and (Tommy John surgery in 2010) — so I’ll do whatever they feel I can do best.”
For Tazawa, being effective comes first. Extra attention doesn’t matter.
Photo via Joy R. Absalon/USA TODAY Sports Images