BOSTON — He came to the Boston Red Sox as an efficient set-up man for the bullpen, yet Koji Uehara has emerged as an end-game master for the American League champions, who are seeking their third World Series title in 10 seasons.
The Japanese pitcher with the devastating splitter was given a rare night off on Wednesday when the Red Sox breezed to an 8-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals in the series opener, but a well-rested Uehara could translate into an even bigger edge as the Series progresses.
The 38-year-old Uehara, a strike-throwing machine, saved three games, including four- and five-out saves, and posted a win in earning Most Valuable Player honors in Boston’s league championship series triumph over the Detroit Tigers.
Uehara threw six shutout innings in all against Detroit, striking out nine without walking a batter.
Uehara thrives with a fastball that strains to reach 90 miles an hour, a tortoise compared to rifle-armed closers, but those that see him day in, day out marvel at his ability.
Boston manager John Farrell, a former major league pitcher and one-time pitching coach for the Red Sox, said: “I sit there and think the guy has got like a sixth sense. He has such a feel for what the hitter is looking for and if they’re going to swing. It’s uncanny.”
Boston backup catcher David Ross said: “We say he’s a Ninja. He just knows.”
What sets Uehara apart, besides the drastic diving action of his split-fingered fastball, is the ability to pinpoint pitches up and down, in and out, as he paints the plate like an artist.
Since signing as a free agent in December for $4.25 million dollars after two seasons in Texas and three with the Baltimore Orioles, Uehara was pressed into action as Boston’s closer following injuries to Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey.
Uehara, used as a set-up man by those clubs after a 10-year career with the Yomiura Giants primarily as a starting pitcher, said he had not been concerned about the prospects of joining a team that had finished last in the AL East in 2012.
“It was more of how the team wanted me, their passion to acquire me and the sincerity,” he said. “I felt honored to play for this team.”
Farrell said people should not be surprised by Uehara.
“He’s not doing something this year that is so out of the norm for him,” the manager said. “He’s been a very successful pitcher, whether it’s been in Japan or here. But the fact he’s the closer here, he’s gained the notoriety that he deserves.”
The exuberant Uehara is well-liked by his teammates and despite the language barrier has displayed a fun-loving sense of humor.
In an age of highly choreographed celebrations, Uehara relies on the old school ‘high-five’ and in one tradition of Boston’s post-win congratulations on the field, David Ortiz playfully lifts Uehara over his shoulder after a save.
After hoisting the MVP trophy, the humble Uehara was asked how he handled the pressure of coming through in a trio of one-run victories in the ALCS.
“To tell you the truth, I almost threw up,” Uehara said through a translator, with his young son, Kaz, standing by his side near the pitcher’s mound.