On Pro Baseball
---- — BOSTON — Red Sox reliever Junichi Tazawa doesn’t show a ton of emotion after pitching well. He’s pretty reserved.
When fellow Japanese reliever Koji Uehara, on the other hand, pitches a clean inning, he sprints into the Boston dugout and passionately slaps every teammate and coach’s hand as hard as possible in a burst of excitement unlike the reaction of any setup man in baseball.
“I can’t tell you exactly when I started it (the celebration), but I’ve been doing it for a while,” Uehara said through his translator. “It’s just something from within. I just love baseball.”
Boston’s two Japanese relievers have their differences, including the way they celebrate. But one big similarity between them: They both have a knack for throwing a lot of clean innings.
The two have been the unsung heroes thus far of the much-better-than-expected 2013 Boston Red Sox.
Tazawa has nine holds, a 2.51 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 18 strikeouts in 16 appearances and 14.1 innings. Uehara has eight holds, a 2.63 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 17 strikeouts in 15 appearances and 13.2 innings.
“Tazawa powa,” read one sign held by a couple of Red Sox fans during a recent Boston/Oakland game at Fenway Park. The sign included Tazawa’s face and a photo of the Tasmanian Devil from the cartoon “Looney Tunes.”
Both Japanese hurlers not only have excited fans but also their teammates.
Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli, who played with Uehara in Texas in 2011 and ‘12, told catcher David Ross and some other his teammates about Uehara’s celebrations on the flight back from spring training.
“Nap was like ‘You’ll love this guy and wait until he gets three out,’” Ross said.
Tazawa retires hitters by establishing his fastball, which as of yesterday he had thrown 68.9 percent of the time this season and at an average speed of 93.8 mph, according to fangraphs.com.
Uehara, on the other hand, doesn’t have a blazing fastball (89.1 mph on average) but his deceptive delivery and movement make his fastball, split-fingered fastball and occasional cutter extremely effective.
Ross said about Tazawa: “He has such a good fastball. He throws hard obviously. I think he’s a little deceptive. And he knows how to locate it. He does a really good job of locating it. He’s got three or four plus-pitches. His breaking ball and slider are pretty similar and his splitty is really good.”
Uehara has averaged 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings during his career as a reliever. That’s good for any pitcher but especially one who doesn’t throw that hard.
“His ball has that climb, which most guys don’t have,” Ross said. “Guys foul off his fastball a lot.
“He kind of just jumps at you a little bit and the ball just kind of pops out of there,” Ross added about Uehara’s deceptive delivery. “He short-arms it a little bit. He comes right at you. He throw four-seam and it’s got that little climb at the end. So guys don’t square it up.”
Tazawa is just 26 and likely will be a vital pitcher for the Red Sox for years to come. Uehara, on the other hand, is 38 and signed just a one-year deal this offseason.
“I certainly feed off my fastball,” Tazawa said through a translator about his repertoire. “But it’s not one pitch that I concentrate on. I try to attack the strike zone with whatever is working on that day.”
Tazawa obviously has the more upside and likely will become either a starting pitcher or closer in the coming years. Don’t expect him to remain in a setup role.
Ross said Tazawa has the potential to be a closer or starter.
“I think he still needs to be more consistent with his offspeed pitches for strikes,” Ross added.
When asked if he sees himself as an eventual starter or closer, Tazawa said he is just focused on his current role. That might be the boring answer. But it’s something the Red Sox front office and coaching staff love to hear because it shows he is focused on what is best for the team and not just himself.
Uehara has thrown his fastball 55.4 percent of the time this year entering yesterday compared to his split-fingered fastball 37.5 percent of the time and his cutter 7.1 percent of the time, according to fangraphs.com.
“Basically, I’m a split-finger and fastball guy,” Uehara said. “I’m always trying to set them up with my fastball and then try to get them out with my split-finger.”
Tazawa added about Uehara’s ability to strike out so many hitters: “It’s hard for me to say but just from playing catch with him, I think just his timing, it’s difficult for the hitters to pick up timing-wise.”
Uehara pitched just 36.0 innings last year, 65.0 innings in 2011 and 44.0 innings in 2010.
Boston manager John Farrell will monitor Uehara’s innings going forward. Uehara never will pitch more than an inning a game.
That said, Uehara has pitched a ton so far. He is on pace for 78 appearances and 68.2 innings this year.
“The only thing I worry about is being ready for that outing and eventually we’ll see how much that ends up to,” Uehara said.
The Red Sox will keep tabs on Tazawa’s innings, too. The right-hander, who had Tommy John surgery, is on pace to throw in 84 games and pitch 73.1 innings this season.
It’s no secret Uehara’s post-inning celebrations have been enjoyable for his fellow teammates.
“We’re just hoping for a clean inning so we get to do that with him,” Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks said. “It’s fun. There’s lots of smiles. It’s funny. It’s not like it pumps us up.”
First baseman/outfielder Mike Carp said it does get some teammates pumped though.
“It’s awesome, especially if he’s coming in like that it’s been a quick inning and a good one for us,” Carp said. “It get us all fired up, especially late in the ballgame. It lets you not lose focus on what’s going on the rest of that inning and the two left.”
Uehara’s celebration has been referred to by teammate Joel Hanrahan as “legendary.”
Carp has never seen a pitcher celebrate quite like Uehara.
“Not with that much intensity and as much fire,” Carp said.