Uehara hit ground running as Boston's closer
BOSTON -- Looking back on that Friday afternoon in Detroit nearly three months ago is kind of a blur now for Koji Uehara.
But for the Red Sox, June 21 -- the day Uehara was anointed by manager John Farrell as the team's new closer -- was a monumental day in their season.
"I can't really remember when that happened when I was told I would be the closer," said Uehara. "At that point, I had no idea how long I would be doing it."
But Uehara made the decision for Farrell look good by compiling perhaps the most consistently brilliant season by any reliever in team history.
The case can be made -- and should be made -- that Uehara has been the best relief pitcher in the American League this season.
With a fastball that usually stays in the 80s and a devastating splitter, Uehara is having a breakthrough season at the age of 37. In 69 2/3 innings, Uehara has a 1.16 ERA, a .127 opponents' batting average, 96 strikeouts and just nine walks. Uehara has struck out 12.4 batters per nine innings.
How has this happened?
"I'm still trying to figure it out myself," Uehara said through an interpreter. "The latter part of the season last year, I was able to pitch well and prepare well during the offseason and I had a good Spring Training. I'm just maintaining that level of confidence in my pitching."
When the free-agency period started last winter, general manager Ben Cherington swiftly put Uehara on the team's radar.
"He was definitely a target," said Cherington. "We talked to him early, and then as the offseason unfolded, there's always a little bit of a dance you play early in the offseason. It seemed clear by the time we got to the Winter Meetings that there was genuine mutual interest. So once that was clear, we pursued it aggressively. And thankfully we were able to get something done."
The news trickled out about Uehara reaching an agreement with Boston just as the Winter Meetings were coming to a close in Nashville, Tenn. It was a story that didn't generate a lot of buzz.
Up to that point, Uehara was an underrated setup man, one who had put up quietly dominant numbers with the Orioles and Rangers the previous two seasons. Over those two years, Uehara compiled a 2.14 ERA over 101 innings and held opponents to a .162 average. Yet nobody seemed to notice.
"It's nothing that I could do about it," Uehara said. "It's all up to the media and everyone else's perspective. It's the position that I pitch. I just think of it that way."
Pitching the ninth inning for the Red Sox will get you in the spotlight. And Uehara got plenty of it over a nearly historic stretch from Aug. 17-Sept. 17, when he retired 37 batters in a row. That was a team record, and it was just four shy of the Major League record for a reliever, set by Bobby Jenks in 2007.
When that streak finally ended, so did another one. Uehara hadn't given up an earned run since June 30, when Jose Bautista took him deep.
Who knows when Uehara will falter next. It could be a while.
"He's stepped up huge obviously in the role that he's in, and his performance has been remarkable," Cherington said. "He's been good for a long time. But nobody could predict this kind of success."
Unlike some other players who have come over from Japan, Uehara came to the Majors with little fanfare back in 2009. Just like he always did for Yomiuri, Uehara was reliable in the Majors.
A starter for most of his time in Japan, Uehara did close in 2007 with Yomiuri, and for part of the '10 season with the Orioles.
As last winter developed, the Red Sox had Andrew Bailey coming back for another season and also made a trade for Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan. Uehara looked like a luxury item at the time.
"We just saw him as a good pitcher," Cherington said. "We weren't sure what the role would end up being. He's always intrigued us because of his amazing ability to throw strikes and get outs within the strike zone."
While Hanrahan quickly went down for the count with Tommy John surgery and Bailey would soon follow with shoulder surgery, Uehara impressed the Red Sox with the ease by which he dominated in the setup role.
When Bailey -- struggling mightily at the time -- blew another save against the Tigers on June 20, the brass had a meeting in Detroit the next day. After some discussion, Uehara was informed he would be pitching the ninth inning until further notice.
"He's a guy that's suitable for [closing]," pitching coach Juan Nieves said of Uehara. "He's been in that situation. He's a veteran. Another option was Andrew Miller. He was coming on real strong, too. I thought Andrew was throwing the ball the best I've ever seen him. But [Uehara] is a great story, and it couldn't happen to us at a better time."
Considering the season-ending injuries to Hanrahan, Bailey and eventually Miller, it's hard to believe the Red Sox would be on the verge of winning the AL East with nine games to spare if not for the consistency and dependability of Uehara.
"You know, in a way, he's been a godsend, given the turnover with the closer's role, the number of guys that unfortunately went down to injury," said Farrell. "And he's getting the notoriety now. He just happens to be at a more focal role as a closer. Yeah, he's on a historic run, but at the same time, this has been a very successful pitcher his entire career, whether it's in Japan or here."
Though the general perception is that closing is a stress-filled role, Uehara actually found the promotion to be therapeutic.
"I feel that it was even more difficult to pitch in the seventh and eighth inning, because you never know what kind of situation you'll be brought into," Uehara said. "In a sense, it is easier [to pitch the ninth], because you know when you're going to come in."
Another misperception that came with Uehara is that he had durability issues. As he explained to the Red Sox, the reason he had injury problems in previous years was because of his inconsistent use. So the Red Sox have gone to him regularly, and they have watched him have one of his healthiest seasons.
"One of the things we wanted to do when we signed him was just get to know him," said Cherington. "John and Juan did a good job of finding out what worked for him I think through Spring Training. What he's communicated to us is he actually feels better when he's getting regular work in, and that allows him to feel his body and stay in tuned."
Earlier in the season, when Uehara pitched the seventh and eighth, he would practically break the hands of teammates with his enthusiastic high fives in the dugout after a successful inning. Now, he finishes out games, so his teammates can come congratulate him in the victory line.
"There isn't a sense of added happiness of ending the game," Uehara said. "The happiness, the joy comes from knowing that you contributed in winning that game."
Nieves sounds as if he's almost tempted to put his feet up on the bench by the time Uehara enters a game.
"Even in Spring Training, he gave you the most restful innings you could possibly see," Uehara said. "That's what you preach. I'm a firm believer in minimum amount of pitches per innings, as many strikes as possible. If you can get within 10 pitches an inning, you can last a long time. That also minimizes damage.
"I speak to the young kids too about that all the time and say, 'That's not a fluke.' That's the formula. The formula is more strikes. If you take your stuff and just throw it over the plate, you're going to have a great chance. You might get hit sometimes, but you'll learn."
Despite the cultural differences Uehara has with most of his teammates, he is constantly interacting and joking around with them. However, he has not grown a beard like most members of the '13 Red Sox.
"I think that everyone is wearing a beard," Uehara said. "So the fact I don't have one makes me stand out even more."
What makes Uehara stand out is his brilliance -- which is finally generating the buzz it deserves.