While the 2021 season did not get off to the best of starts for the Red Sox on Friday, it did to some degree for Japanese reliever Hirokazu Sawamura.
The soon-to-be 33-year-old right-hander made his Red Sox — and major-league — debut in the ninth inning of Friday’s 3-0 Opening Day loss to the Orioles.
Coming on with his side already trailing by three runs, Sawamura was tasked with keeping that deficit where it was at to give the Sox a chance in their half of the ninth. And with the bottom half of the Orioles’ lineup due to hit in the inning, he wound up doing just that.
There was some trouble along the way, as Sawamura yielded a two-out double to Freddy Galvis to make things a little interesting. But all in all, the righty retired three of the four Baltimore hitters he faced, picked up his first career major-league strikeout, and put together his first scoreless relief appearance in the process of doing so.
“I wasn’t nervous at all, actually,” Sawamura said during his postgame media availability through interpreter Yutaro Yamaguchi. “Just trying to focus on taking it one hitter at a time, one pitch at a time, and just trying to execute my pitches today.”
By the time he had gotten Orioles catcher Pedro Severino to ground out to second for the final out of the frame, Sawamura had reached 21 pitches — 13 of which went for strikes.
Of those 21 pitches, 11 were four-seam fastballs, six were sliders, and four were split-finger fastballs. His fastest four-seamer of the day registered at 95.8 mph, while his fastest splitter registered at 93.5 mph, per Baseball Savant. He also induced five swings-and-misses — three of which came on the slider — as well.
As noted by MassLive.com’s Christopher Smith, Sawamura was known for having a nasty splitter upon signing with the Red Sox back in February. It’s a pitch the Sox should be familiar with considering how much Koji Uehara used it in his four seasons in Boston from 2013-2016.
On top of that, itt turns out that Sawamura and Uehara are actually close. They were teammates on the Yomiuri Giants of Nippon Professional Baseball from 2018-2019 and Sawamura even wears the No. 19 and uses Darude’s “Sandstorm” as his entrance song to honor the former Sox closer.
Uehara, per Smith, averaged 81.6 mph with his splitter during his best season with the Red Sox in 2013. Sawamura, who is just getting his Red Sox career started, averaged 92.7 mph with his split-finger fastball on Friday.
“Yeah, I think that’s about my average or a little below my average [normally],” Sawamura said in regards to the velocity of his splitter.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora was among those who was impressed by what he saw from Sawamura in his team debut on Friday. After all, it was just a few weeks ago that the Japanese hurler was still trying to find his footing in a new and unfamiliar setting during spring training.
“That was good, man,” Cora said of Sawamura’s outing. “The game’s still on the line, 3-0. … He was in control. Good splits today. That was probably his best split-fingered fastball since he got here. So that’s a plus. And for him to go out there and get his feet wet at the big-league level, that was fun to watch.”
(Picture of Hirokazu Sawamura: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)