He walks the streets of Boston anonymously, no autograph seekers in his wake. Only in recent weeks have the souvenir stands at Fenway Park sold T-shirts bearing his name and number 19.
Not even his favorite Japanese barbecue restaurant in Boston saves a table for Koji Uehara, the nearly perfect pitcher of the Red Sox and the most valuable player of this surprising season.
“I came here to play baseball and to win games,” Uehara said, “not to be famous. That doesn’t matter to me.”
But accomplishments have trumped his modesty. At the age of 38, Uehara is having one of the best seasons for a reliever in baseball history. As the first-place Red Sox prepare for the postseason, Uehara will have a central role, and the goal he set years ago, to pitch in the World Series, is within reach.
As the closer, the last man out of the bullpen, it could fall to Uehara to get the final out of the Fall Classic. The Red Sox would welcome that.
“I don’t know if we’re where we are without Koji,” catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “You need that guy at the end of the game and he stepped up.’’
By almost every statistical measure, Uehara has been the best relief pitcher in the American League. In 67 appearances, the most of his career, Uehara has allowed 29 hits over 67⅔ innings and struck out 94 against just nine walks, two them intentional.
Opponents are hitting .126 against Uehara and have only six hits in their last 95 at-bats. His two pitches, a split-finger fastball that dives down as it reaches the plate and a conventional fastball that comes in at 90 miles per hour but looks faster, have been almost unhittable.
“It’s remarkable,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “Regardless of the time of the game, you’re in to execute one pitch and then execute the next one. He’s the epitome of that. He makes you look real smart.”
Uehara has been perfect in his last 11 games, going 12 innings and retiring all 36 batters he has faced on only 142 pitches. Going back to Aug. 17, he has set down 37 consecutive batters. That’s a Red Sox record and the longest streak for any reliever since Bobby Jenks of the White Sox retired 41 in a row in 2007.
Since he became the closer in late June, Uehara has allowed one earned run. One. He’s also 4-0 with 19 saves and going back to July 5 has struck out 43 with one walk.
The numbers read like something out of fiction. “Mind-boggling,” Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley said.
Yankees legend Mariano Rivera, who is generally considered the best relief pitcher in baseball history, has never reached those levels in his 19-year career.
“Uehara is the man,” Rivera said. “He’s just going at people. He’s not messing around, not pitching around hitters. He’s going at people right away. That’s the meaning of a closer.”
Uehara celebrates each save with a joyful leap off the mound, an embrace for his catcher, and high fives for his teammates.
“I’m still nervous when I pitch, that’s why I express myself the way I do,” Uehara said. “I don’t want to let anybody down.”
The Red Sox started the season planning on using Uehara in a secondary role, somebody to pitch the seventh inning. Two former All-Stars, Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, were ahead of him on the bullpen depth chart.
“He was a strike-thrower and we felt we needed that in our bullpen,” general manager Ben Cherington said. “We liked him a lot based on what he had done and his personality seemed like a good fit.”
Uehara had pitched well in his four previous seasons in the majors. But when the righthander agreed to a one-year free agent contract last December, it merited only a brief press release. Other additions to the roster seemed far more significant.
Then Hanrahan was lost to an elbow injury in May and Bailey underwent shoulder surgery in June. The job of finishing games fell to Uehara, despite concerns about his durability. He never gave it up.
“I didn’t think too much about it. I just went out and pitched,” he said. “Whatever inning it is, the job is the same.”
During an extended interview, Uehara gave answers with the assistance of his interpreter, C.J. Matsumoto. But he nodded his head in understanding when questions were asked, and sprinkled in words of English throughout.
Uehara is eager to bridge the cultural and language barriers present for Japanese players in the majors. He trades eagerly in the bawdy humor of the clubhouse, pokes fun at others, and earlier this season took a television camera from a Japanese reporter and pretended to interview Farrell.
“He’s a funny guy. He has a good personality and he’s outgoing,” said first baseman Mike Napoli, Uehara’s teammate for part of two seasons with the Texas Rangers and now with the Red Sox. “Koji is a great teammate, one of the best I’ve had.”
Uehara said his team spirit stems from his time at the Osaka University of Health and Sports Sciences, a teacher’s college. The school’s baseball program was the equivalent of a Division 3 team in the United States, but the players formed a bond that left a lasting impression on Uehara.
“We didn’t have a great team but we stuck together and we played together,” Uehara said. “Being a good teammate is something that is important. Here, I communicate a lot with body language.”
It was in college when Uehara made the life-changing decision to raise his hand when a coach asked for volunteers to pitch. An outfielder, he had thrown batting practice in high school and showed the ability to consistently throw strikes.
Once he started pitching in earnest, Uehara developed his split-finger fastball. That pitch made his conventional fastball more effective.
Scouts from the Japanese Central and Pacific Leagues, and even some in the majors, took notice. Uehara briefly toyed with the idea of trying to play professionally in the United States out of college, which at the time would have been unprecedented.
“I wanted to play against the best. I just wasn’t ready then,” he said.
The top team in Japan, the Yomiuri Giants, drafted Uehara in the first round. Over 10 seasons, mainly as a starter, he was 112-62 with a 3.01 ERA. Uehara played for two championship teams with the Giants and was eight times an all-star in Japan.
Former Red Sox outfielder Gabe Kapler played with Uehara for the Giants in 2005. He remembers thinking that Uehara had a chance to pitch in the United States, but certainly not as a dominating closer.
“He was the Greg Maddux of Japan, somebody with great control. But I saw him as a third or fourth starter in the majors,” said Kapler, now an analyst for Fox Sports 1. “To watch him now, it’s not the same pitcher. But it’s a joy to watch.”
Uehara pitched in the 2004 Olympics for Japan and helped Japan win the World Baseball Classic in 2006. Those experiences only added to his desire to play in the majors.
Uehara became a free agent after the 2008 season. By then married and with a young son, the idea of jumping to the majors was more complicated than before. Hideki Matsui, a teammate with the Giants who left Japan to play for the Yankees, advised Uehara to try it.
“It was in my heart my entire career,” he said. “But I wanted to make sure my family would be comfortable.”
Uehara signed with the Baltimore Orioles. He was initially a starter before a series of injuries led to his becoming a reliever.
“We were trying to figure out a way to keep him healthy, which was get him up one time, get him in the game, and get out,” Baltimore manager Buck Showalter said. “He’s special. He’s fun to be around.”
In shorter stints, Uehara excelled. His splitter fooled hitters and he piled up strikeouts. He also grew to love Baltimore, purchasing a home there.
“Koji seemed like when he first came over here, he wanted to be involved with the team,” Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said. “I think he was one of the best teammates I ever had.”
The Orioles traded Uehara to the Rangers in 2011. But Uehara never completely left Baltimore. His wife, Miho, and 7-year-old Kazuma live there during the season and often for a few weeks after before returning to Tokyo.
“We like the school my son goes to and he plays sports. It’s a good city,” Uehara said. “When Baltimore traded me, it was upsetting.”
Uehara stays in a hotel in Boston, checking out before every road trip. His family sometimes visits but more often he spends days off in Baltimore.
When the Red Sox offered him a one-year contract worth $4.25 million, Uehara took it. The deal included an option for 2014 based on playing time that has been met. But for now, the only thing that matters to him is continuing this unprecedented run.
“I can’t lose focus on what I’m doing,” Uehara said. “I think about the next pitch, the next batter. That’s it.”
Surely he must dream of the World Series, of reaching the top. Before the question could be translated, Uehara smiled.
“If I accomplish that, I would like you to come back and ask me then. I’ll have a good answer,” he said.