How Koji Uehara influenced new reliever Hirokazu Sawamura to join Red Sox

As Hirokazu Sawamura pondered the possibility of leaving Japan to play for the Red Sox, he consulted a fellow Japanese pitcher and former teammate who’s beloved in Boston.

Koji Uehara, who played four seasons with the Red Sox from 2013-16, helping them win the World Series in 2013, returned to play for the Yomiuri Giants in Japan after his MLB career was over, and he became teammates with Sawamura for two seasons. After nine seasons in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, the 32-year-old Sawamura decided this winter that he wanted to test himself by coming to the United States to play in MLB, and when the Red Sox became a frontrunner for the reliever’s services, he had the right person to talk to.

“Koji Uehara had a lot of influence in my decision-making process,” Sawamura said Wednesday, via interpreter Yutaro Yamaguchi. “He told me a lot of good stuff about the Red Sox and his experience and he shared with me all of his experiences. Back in 2013 when the Red Sox won the World Series, he was coming out of the bullpen from Fenway with “Sandstorm,” the entrance music. That was a really cool moment for me, so I started using the “Sandstorm,” the same music in Japan. I think Koji Uehara had a lot of influence and he kind of helped me get to where I am today.”

It’s unclear if Sawamura will bring back “Sandstorm,” the popular instrumental song by Darude, as his entrance music — “it’s a top secret right now,” Sawamura said — but he’s certainly excited about joining the Red Sox. Sawamura officially signed a two-year deal Tuesday worth almost $3 million, with a dual club/player option for a third season, a contract that his agent, John Boggs, said was one of the most challenging he’s ever completed.

Sawamura, who posted a 2.82 ERA in 10 seasons at all levels in Japan, wanted a new challenge in baseball, and the Red Sox seemed to be the most aggressive in pursuit of him. Boggs credited Gus Quattlebaum, the Red Sox’ vice president of professional scouting, for pushing meetings in the right direction that eventually led to a deal.

“Over the last couple of years, I’m a baseball player and my job is to pitch at the highest level possible,” Sawamura said of his decision to leave Japan for the U.S. “Over the last couple of years, I kind of started thinking about coming to the MLB. I believe that MLB is the highest level of baseball in the world and I just want to see how well I can pitch at this level. …

“As far as the reason why I chose Boston. I had a lot of meetings, meetings after meetings with my agent, John. He told me a lot of good stuff about the Boston Red Sox and their passion about wanting me over there, so that really struck my heart, and that’s why I chose to play for the Red Sox.”

Though pitchers and catchers reported to Fort Myers on Wednesday for workouts starting Thursday, Sawamura will be a late arrival. He’s waiting for his visa to be approved before he comes.

“I’ve talked to the team about me coming to spring camp late and they approved it, so I’m thankful for that,” Sawamura said. “Right now in Japan, I’m trying to stay in shape, try to get myself ready for the spring camp and when I get there, I’ll be ready. So that’s what I’m trying to do right now. As far as the visa situation, there’s a lot of uncertainty with COVID and all that stuff, so once the visa gets approved, then I’m ready to come over here.”

Once he does, he’s ready to take on whatever role is asked of him. Sawamura was initially a starter before being transitioned to the bullpen in 2015, and he flourished as a closer, recording 36 saves in 2016 and 37 saves in 2017. But he hasn’t closed since. Chaim Bloom seemed hopeful that Sawamura would be capable of pitching in high-leverage situations, but an exact role won’t be pinned down until he arrives to Fort Myers for camp.

“I haven’t really talked to Alex Cora or other pitching staff about my role or where I’m going to pitch,” Sawamura said. “I’m ready, I’ve prepared myself to pitch in any given situation, so whenever coaches tell me to pitch, that’s when I pitch. …

“One thing I can say is that as of now, I’m just focusing on getting to know each other, getting to know my teammates, my coaching staff, my manager and all that stuff. The result will follow if I keep working hard and good results will follow. That’s my main focus right now.”

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