Sawamura throws bullpen session at JetBlue

March 3rd, 2021

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Hirokazu Sawamura, the right-hander from Japan who brings great intrigue with him to Spring Training, put his Red Sox uniform on for the first time Wednesday morning at JetBlue Park.

Not long after that, Sawamura went to one of the mounds in front of the clubhouse at Fenway South and threw a 23-pitch bullpen session with a wave of camera clicks from the Japanese media serving as a soundtrack.

Sawamura, a veteran of 10 pro seasons in Japan, threw all fastballs and splitters in what was perhaps his most attended bullpen session ever.

“It was my first bullpen session ever in the U.S. and wearing this jersey, the Red Sox jersey, so I was so excited,” Sawamura said through interpreter Yutaro Yamaguchi. “But at the same time, I was a little bit nervous. To answer your second question, it’s been good weather. Pretty hot. Nice environment, I’ve been loving that. So if I can just get it going with this climate, environment, I should be good to go.”

Luckily for Sawamura, he got his bullpen session in under cloudy conditions about an hour before one of those epic Florida downpours.

In their quest to upgrade the bullpen this winter, the Red Sox talked to numerous free agents and explored many trade targets.

The trade with the Yankees for Adam Ottavino was move No. 1. The second significant bullpen acquisition was the signing of the hard-throwing Sawamura, which was made official on Feb. 16.

Sawamura’s entry to camp was delayed by visa issues, which were resolved in time for him to make the long flight from Japan over the weekend.

After going through the COVID-19 intake process and getting some time to recover from jet lag, Sawamura was ready to get to work on Wednesday.

“Very likable guy” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “I remember when we talked to him in the offseason -- as you guys know, we talked to a lot of people, we were in everything, including some players from Japan -- he was very honest about what he wanted to do, why he wanted to come here. He asked questions. [Chief baseball officer] Chaim [Bloom] got some answers.”

Cora appreciated the depth of the conversation, if not the unexpected timing.

“We talked about the bullpen and the city and everything that’s involved to be part of this organization. He owes me a bottle of wine, because I was in the middle of a mini-vacation, no twins, nobody,” quipped Cora. “We were in the mountains in Puerto Rico. Yeah, because of that phone call, I get a bottle of wine from him. I’m waiting for that one too.”

In truth, Sawamura’s biggest gift to Cora could be how he pitches.

The Red Sox project him to be one of their key relievers late in games, joining Matt Barnes, Ottavino and Darwinzon Hernandez.

Though Sawamura had back-to-back solid seasons as a closer for the Yomiuri Giants in 2015-16, Cora said that the 32-year-old won’t start the season in that role.

That would be a lot of pressure for someone who already is acclimating to a new culture, a new baseball, a new climate and a whole new crop of hitters.

As for the different baseball -- which is the biggest adjustment for most Japanese pitchers when they come to the U.S. -- Sawamura started adapting to it over the winter in anticipation of signing with a Major League team.

“After the season in Japan last year, I took some days off, but right after that, I started working out using the Major League baseball,” Sawamura said. “And the climate here and Japan are different, so obviously the climate, the wetness and humidity ... I’ll have to make adjustments in terms of handling the Major League baseball.”

Sawamura, who isn’t sure when he will pitch in a Grapefruit League game for the first time, knows that he’s likely to have to change his approach to thrive against the best hitters in the world.

“I’ve got to see how effective I can use the strike zone,” Sawamura said. “I’m the type of guy who kind of pitches in the high strike zone and lower part. I don’t use the corner work. It’s more like vertical movement. If I could make those adjustments, I should be able to adjust to Major League batters.”

Various adjustments -- and how quickly and adeptly he can make them -- will be the determining factor in how big of a success story Sawamura is for the Red Sox.