ST. LOUIS — Koji Uehara inherited what was a listing ship, but he had been there many times before, and almost all the time turned imminent disaster into another Red Sox victory.
Not Saturday night. Not it Game 3 of the World Series at Busch Stadium, with the crowd a sea of Cardinals red and an imaginary red light flashing over Boston’s championship hopes. Not with one of the wackiest endings of all time about to befall his Red Sox.
Uehara, typically brought in from the bullpen with the Sox working with a lead, instead entered a tie game in the ninth after Yadier Molina opened the inning with a pop single to right. Sox manager John Farrell, already on his fourth reliever in the wake of Jake Peavy’s four-inning start, called Uehara to face Allen Craig.
Standard Uehara magic here, of course, is to get right to work, work at a fast pace, then watch hitter after hitter swing and miss at his offerings. In a season of magic endings, Uehara, the unexpected closer, has had the greatest magic of all, stepping into the closer’s role in a way no one has since the departure of Jonathan Papelbon.
So, in a time of need, where else to turn but to Uehara?
“I felt like we had four outs with Koji — four to five outs,’’ mused Farrell, after watching his Sox fall, 5-4, in a bizarre interference play at third base. “If the thought was to go for a two-inning outing for Koji, we would have pinch hit for [Brandon] Workman [in the eighth inning] before. We were trying to get two innings out of Workman.’’
So into the ninth for a second inning came Workman, who was so vital in closing out the Tigers in Game 6 of the ALCS. Until the Molina single, and until Workman’s pitch count became a concern.
“Once his pitch count was getting in the 30s range, with the go-ahead run on base, that was the time to bring Koji in, even though this would have been five outs.’’
Farrell, by factoring the possibility of five outs, anticipated Uehara would provide the stop in the ninth and then face the Cards in the 10th — perhaps to try to erase a Boston lead. “We fully expected him to go back out for the 10th,’’ he said,
The first sign that things would not be normal came when Craig met Uehara with a hard double down theleft-field line, setting the Cards up to win in any number of ways. One out. Men on second and third. Even a fly ball deep enough could have brought the slow-afoot Molina in from third on a tag play. Then came the craziness. Jon Jay, 1 for 4 on the night, knocked a sharp grounder to Dustin Pedroia on the right side. The surehanded second baseman fired home and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia applied the tag to the oncoming Molina. Two outs.
In a flash, it looked like Uehara was about to do it again. Two outs. Even with two men on base, Uehara could easily end the threat, no doubt with a three- or four-pitch strikeout.
But he didn’t get the chance. Craig, aggressive on the basepaths, wheeled toward third base as Molina ran into the sure out at home. Saltalamacchia saw it unfolding, saw third baseman Will Middlebrooks covering the bag, and pegged his a throw to third in an attempt to play closer himself. Had his thrown been on the dime, had Middlebrooks been able to glove it and provide a sweep tag, then the inning would end.
But not to be. The ball went by Middlebrooks in his collision with Craig, and Craig straightened up and bolted for home. Alert field fielder Daniel Nava backed up the play, fired home in time to get Craig. But it was all for not. A dazed, even dumbfounded Middlebrooks, was called for interference and at 11:03 p.m. in St. Louis, with some 48,000 fans screaming like never before in Busch Stadium, the game was over.
“Tough way to have a game end,’’ said Farrell, who might have been better off letting Uehara start the inning, which also would have had him putting up a pinch hitter for Workman in the eighth. “Particularly of this significance. When Will is trying to dive inside to stop the throw. I don’t know how he gets out of the way when he’s lying on the ground. Craig trips over him . . . that’s a tough pill to swallow.’’