Red Sox closer finishes series with three saves, one victory
BOSTON -- The course of the season changed for the Red Sox when Koji Uehara took over as closer, with the veteran right-hander's deceptive delivery and devastating splitter helping ease any worries once the ball reached the ninth inning.
That run of success continued into the American League Championship Series, where Boston trusted Uehara in its most important games of the year. Uehara never faltered, and the 38-year-old was rewarded with ALCS Most Valuable Player honors.
"All the credit goes to the staff, to the players who supported me," Uehara said through a translator on the field, not long after recording a swinging strikeout of Jose Iglesias to seal Boston's 5-2 victory over the Tigers.
Asked whether he could feel the pressure of the moment, the closer added with a laugh, "To tell you the truth, I almost threw up."
Uehara picked up a win and three saves while striking out eight and walking none over six innings of work in the ALCS, permitting just four hits. He hoisted the MVP trophy over his head in an on-field presentation held at second base, as the Fenway Park crowd roared.
"Given what he did all year, particularly in the postseason, whether it was four outs, five outs or a clean ninth inning like tonight, there's a reason why he should be the MVP," Red Sox manager John Farrell said.
"We were talking about, who else would [the MVP] be?" added Red Sox reliever Brandon Workman. "The guy didn't throw a ball, let alone give up runs. It's special watching him finish games."
The Red Sox are thanking their incredible fortune in landing Uehara, who was signed to fill a setup role. He claimed the closer's job in June after Joel Hanrahan needed season-ending elbow surgery and Andrew Bailey struggled before injuring his shoulder.
A starting pitcher in Japan who pitched out of the bullpen with varying levels of success for the Orioles and Rangers before arriving in Boston as a free agent, Uehara reflected on the unlikely circumstances that dropped him into the ninth-inning role. He spoke of the Red Sox's "passion to acquire me and the sincerity," adding, "I felt honored to play for this team."
Uehara entered this season with only 14 career saves, but he showed a knack for closing thanks to his swing-and-miss stuff. He was dominant in the regular season, posting a 1.09 ERA and 21 saves to go along with an 11.22 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Somehow, Uehara, who was left off Texas' World Series roster just two years ago after struggling in the playoffs, managed to be even better in the ALCS.
Uehara struck out two in a scoreless inning of work in Game 1, tossed a perfect ninth in Game 2 to set up Jarrod Saltalamacchia's walk-off single and recorded the final four outs of the Red Sox's 1-0 win in Game 3 on Tuesday.
Uehara increased his workload again in Game 5, recording five outs and striking out two as he picked up his second save of the ALCS.
"It's been unbelievable. He's been absolutely fantastic, you know," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said before Game 6. "I was reading a lot of the articles today about when they signed him, they probably in their own mind didn't anticipate this was going to happen.
"But sometimes it does. And they caught lightning in a bottle. He's been absolutely terrific, there's no question about that. And obviously his significance right now is probably as important as anybody they've got on their team."
Farrell said before Saturday's Game 6 that he wouldn't rule out using Uehara for the game's final six outs, but he only needed three. The Fenway Park fans chanted "KO-JI!" as Uehara struck out Alex Avila and cleanly fielded Omar Infante's bunt for the second out.
Uehara said that he felt some additional comfort in knowing that he had a three-run lead instead of his usual one-run margin of error. Austin Jackson reached on an infield single that shortstop Stephen Drew couldn't quite scoop, but Uehara recovered, striking out Iglesias with a splitter.
Having secured the final out, Uehara met catcher Saltalamacchia between the mound and home plate, jumping in the catcher's arms, screaming and pointing as the Red Sox mobbed him and began to celebrate their first trip to the World Series since 2007.
"All I can say is that I'm extremely, extremely happy right now," Uehara said.