ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Red Sox manager John Farrell called it the unforeseen. Other Red Sox observers would have called it impossible, like someone walking across the Charles River or hop-scotching across the trestles of the Tobin Bridge.
Either way, it happened. Indomitable, unhittable closer Koji Uehara, as sure a thing as there is on this Red Sox team and in Boston sports at the moment, gave up a stunning, two-out walkoff home run to Tampa Bay catcher Jose Lobaton in the ninth inning Monday night that gave the Rays a 5-4 victory in Game 3 and new life in this American League Division Series.
Unpredictability is one of the reasons we watch sports, which is the real reality television. It’s unscripted entertainment. No one would have predicted that after the Sox scratched out a run in the top of the ninth to tie the game, 4-4, Uehara would be on the mound for their demise.
All season long he’s mowed down hitters like an automated pitching machine, a high-fiving, strike-throwing, game-closing android. Just plug him in at night and let him pull the plug on opposing teams’ chances of winning.
But even the Great Uehara, who posted a 1.09 earned run average, had a 30⅓ scoreless inning streak, and at one point this season retired a club-record 37 consecutive batters, is not infallible.
“I mean, he’s human,” reminded catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “You guys got to remember he is a human being and things are going to happen. The good thing is he’s able to bounce back. He’s done it all year long. I don’t expect anything different.”
The question this postseason about the Red Sox bullpen has never been Uehara. It’s been about the bridge to Uehara, and it was a bit of a bumpy ride Monday night. Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa got the job done in a tense seventh. The inning ended with Tazawa facing the Rays’ No. 3 and 4 hitters. Tazawa got Evan Longoria, whose three-run homer off Clay Buchholz in the fifth tied the game, to pop out, and Wil Myers to strike out on a splitter.
The strikeout of Myers was fateful because he came down with leg cramps on his swing and left the game. Rays manager Joe Maddon was forced to use designated hitter Matt Joyce to take Myers’s spot in right field, which meant he couldn’t employ a DH. Lobaton ended up in Myers’s spot after Maddon pulled a double-switch in the ninth to go from Jake McGee, who pitched the eighth, to his closer, Fernando Rodney.
The Rays had taken a 4-3 lead in this instant classic in the bottom of the eighth in classic Rays fashion, never getting the ball out of the infield. Delmon Young pinch hit for catcher Jose Molina and brought home pinch runner Sam Fuld on a grounder to first off Brandon Workman.
Rodney couldn’t hold off the Sox, who tied the game on Dustin Pedroia’s grounder to shortstop in the ninth.
That set the stage for Lobaton’s first career postseason hit and unlikely heroics. And Uehara’s even more improbable part as his foil.
Uehara had faced Lobaton twice before and retired him both times, including a strikeout during Uehara’s Game 2 save in this series. Uehara retired more dangerous Rays Ben Zobrist and Longoria on a ground out and a fly out. It was time to turn the scorebook to the top of the 10th.
Uehara threw a first-pitch splitter to Lobaton. Then he threw another one. This one splash-landed in the ray tank in right-center field. (No word on if the Sox had planned to splash around there themselves if they had been able to sweep.)
That was it. To paraphrase the immortal Jack Buck, it was we’ll see you tomorrow night.
“It wasn’t a bad pitch he made,” said Saltalamacchia. “[Lobaton] just did a good job of going down and getting it and golfing it out.”
It was the first home run Uehara had allowed in more than three months, the last coming June 30 at Fenway Park off the bat of Jose Bautista.
Uehara was not the Sox closer by design, but he’s been a professional pitcher long enough between his career in Japan and in the majors to understand that hits like Lobaton’s are the occupational hazard of pitching the most heart-stopping and harrowing innings in a baseball game.
Serving one up once and a while comes with the territory, no matter if you’re Dennis Eckersley, Mariano Rivera, or Koji Uehara.
Uehara acknowledged, “It certainly comes with the territory” through translator C.J. Matsumoto in a sepulchral Sox clubhouse postgame.
But that didn’t make this one any easier to take.
“It was a hard thing to swallow since the team had just come back,” said Uehara, through his translator. “I wanted to give them an opportunity to get back on the field.”
A tough loss translates in any language.
The playoffs have not been kind to Uehara. This was the fourth postseason home run he has served up. In 2011 with Texas, he became the first relief pitcher in MLB history to allow home runs in three straight playoff appearances and was left off the Rangers’ World Series roster.
But you can chalk that up to the ephemeral nature of relief pitching. It’s a boom/bust business, even for the best.
It’s worth remembering that the Sox wouldn’t even be in this position, one game from the American League Championship Series, it if weren’t for Uehara’s emergence as a lockdown closer after presumptive closers Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan both suffered season-ending injuries.
Nobody always writes a perfect ending out of the ’pen, not even Uehara.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.