Barriers at the Ballpark

by Ryan

On Tuesday night, a night where Buffalo’s Nelson Figueroa stole the show, the spotlight remained squarely on the visitor’s clubhouse.

That spotlight was created by a gaggle of Japanese reporters, cameras in tow. However most of those reporters remained silent while Pawtucket manager Ron Johnson spoke of the 2-1 loss into the bright lights those cameras needed. They weren’t here to talk to a manager, they wanted the losing pitcher.

It’s not often a visiting player receives that much attention in Buffalo, let alone in defeat. However much of the media contingent on Tuesday was there only to see Junichi Tazawa, the 23-year-old pitching prospect making his first career AAA start.

Tazawa is on a somewhat unprecedented journey, with about a dozen others along for the ride. The Japanese right-hander is trying to make the jump from amateur baseball back home right to the pros in North America, something few before him have tried, let alone accomplish.

Most Japanese players spend time in places such as Nippon Professional Baseball before testing the waters overseas, but Tazawa asked not to be picked in the 12-team Nippon League’s annual amateur draft last winter. The teams obliged, and on December 8, 2008 he signed a three-year contract with the Boston Red Sox.

If Tazawa were drafted and played for a NPB team, he would have not been allowed to become a free agent for nine years. Instead, he aims to become just the third Japanese player in MLB history to play in the majors without Japanese pro experience.

The foreign frenzy that followed his decision has remained with him throughout his time in America. His media posse started in Portland, where he pitched 98 innings in 18 appearances, posting a 2.57 ERA and a cool 1.07 WHIP. His 9-5 record isn’t stunning, but only 28 earned runs and 88 strikeouts were impressive enough to gain a trip to AAA Portland.

And so the Japanese media descended upon downtown Buffalo to witness the latest chapter in the Tazawa story. With eyes glued to the radar display in left-center, reporters watched Junichi give up an unearned run in the first.

Tazawa’s 91 MPH fastball was turned around by Bisons’ leadoff man Argenis Reyes, who moved to third on a Jesus Feliciano single. After Chip Ambres struck out swinging and Feliciano was caught stealing, Reyes scored when Mike Lamb’s grounder was thrown away by first baseman Aaron Bates. Bates couldn’t hit Tazawa as he raced to cover the bag, and the ball bounded into the Bisons’ dugout as Reyes crossed home plate.

After a rocky first, Tazawa settled down over the next five innings. A flawless second inning was followed by an impressive third, despite hitting Wilson Valdez with a pitch to lead off the frame. Tazawa would strike out Reyes, then turn a nifty double play on a Feliciano line drive. The 23-year-old made a leaping grab, then fired to shortstop Ivan Ochoa to start the turn.

Tazawa then cruised until the sixth, where he allowed his third hit on Wilson Valdez’ double. He would later score on a Feliciano groundout, giving Tazawa his first AAA earned run and eventually his first loss.

Despite a brilliant three-hit, six inning outing, the opposing pitcher was the real ace. Bisons veteran Nelson Figueroa had another routine eight inning start, allowing one unearned run on just four hits. The righty struck out nine and walked one, lowering his ERA to 2.25.

Figueroa had retired 15 straight until a walk in the sixth, but his lone mistake came in the seventh inning when a Chris Duncan single was moved around by a passed ball and two ground outs for the lone PawSox run. When asked about the outing, Pawtucket manager Ron Johnson summed up Figueroa’s performance best.

“I wish they’d send him to the big leagues so we don’t have to face him anymore,” he said.

Yet despite the final score, the real story remained in his clubhouse, and after some treatment and an extended wait, two Japanese men emerged from the trainer’s room ready to answer questions. The shorter of the two led the way outside where to where the cameras could set up, ready to capture what they came for.

Earlier the English-speaking reporters asked the Pawtucket manager about Tazawa’s nerves. Johnson replied by saying, “I think everyone’s going to be a little nervous, but I probably look a little bit more (nervous).”

If that’s true, the same can certainly be said about the shorter of the two men, Tazawa’s translator. He obviously didn’t expect the crowd, and admitted in English that he was nervous before the questions began.

Tazawa, however, just stood there smiling. Donning a red shirt and “Jiggy Jock” necklace he patiently waited for the visibly nervous translator to ask questions and give broken, pause-filled answers. For just over six minutes, while bright lights filled the hallway, almost a dozen Japanese reporters waited quietly for the regulars to get out of the way.

As the English-speaking reporters finished and headed upstairs to file stories, the relieved translator stepped aside and wiped sweat from his forehead while the Japanese reporters moved in. Now it was their turn to ask the questions, to get the real story behind a phenom’s first start.

A nation was waiting for his answer, but at least they were polite enough to let the other guys get to him first.