Junichi Tazawa

Red Sox reliever Junichi Tazawa recalls his debut in Yankee Stadium, which didn't end well

John Tomase
August 06, 2015 - 11:37 am

The Red Sox haven't yet had a need for Junichi Tazawa in a Yankees series that wraps up on Thursday night in the Bronx. Almost exactly six years ago in this same park, they didn't expect to use him, either, and Tazawa ended up making a memorable debut that gave him an immediate introduction to the perils of life as a big league reliever. Alex Rodriguez's walkoff homer off of Tazawa gave the Yankees a dramatic victory in the 15th inning, but Tazawa has been just fine since, winning a World Series and emerging as one of the most dependable arms in the bullpens of both Bobby Valentine and John Farrell. "If somebody reminds me of that day, I do think about it, but not usually," Tazawa said through translator C.J. Matsumoto. There was so much to process. The Red Sox had summoned Tazawa that day from Triple-A Pawtucket, where he was 0-2 with a 2.38 ERA in two starts. He figured he was there in case of an emergency, which is exactly what happened. Former teammates Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett pitched dueling shutouts through seven and then the bullpens kept things scoreless well into extra innings. "One by one, pitchers were going into the game," Tazawa said. "At that point, it was just me and Takashi Saito. We were talking about who would go in first. And then Saito went in and I knew I'd be the next one going in the game." Saito pitched a scoreless 13th, leaving Red Sox manager Terry Francona with a difficult decision -- try to coax another inning out of the 39-year-old Saito, who had already pitched in two of the previous three games, or hand Tazawa the ball to open the 14th for his debut. He chose the latter. "I was the only one in the bullpen, but I didn't feel lonely," Tazawa said. "I was just waiting for the phone call. I was just trying to stay ready at that point." First up: Hideki Matsui, Tazawa's Japanese countryman and a childhood hero. "I didn't know who I was facing until exactly at the point I was going into the game," Tazawa said. "I just knew he was a guy I was always watching on TV, so it was a dream kind of situation for me, facing that guy." Matsui greeted Tazawa with a screaming liner to center for the first out. Singles by Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano brought Eric Hinske to the plate, and off the bat the game looked over. But Red Sox right fielder J.D. Drew glided effortlessly to the line to make the game-saving catch. "I do remember that play," Tazawa said. "There were a couple of those plays that led up to that A-Rod at-bat. I felt that everybody was behind me." And that brings us to the 15th. Tazawa returned for a second inning and allowed a leadoff single to Derek Jeter. Johnny Damon popped up a bunt and Mark Teixeira struck out, bringing A-Rod to the plate. He did not miss a 2-1 offering, launching it into the seats in left-center, and leaving Tazawa to trudge off the mound a loser in his first game. "What I remember about that moment is that I lost the game," Tazawa said. "Everyone else had done their job and I hadn't and I felt bad about that. But the thing I remember after the game is, Jason Varitek came to me and told me that the pitch that A-Rod hit, that was on him, and that he put down the wrong sign and called the wrong pitch. "Just the fact that he said that to me, that really took a lot of pressure off my shoulders. I gained a lot of respect for him after that conversation." Tazawa's road to the majors wouldn't be direct thereafter. He posted a 7.46 ERA in six appearances (4 starts) in 2009 before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010. He emerged in 2012 under Valentine and has been a fixture ever since. In some ways, he has A-Rod to thank. "I felt that I needed to get better after that game," he said. "That's somewhat of a drive that drove me to where I am."