FORT MYERS, Fla. — He’s one of those fun-loving people. Always with a smile on his face. Always having a good time amid serious work to prepare for another season.
Last season, his energy was contagious in the Red Sox clubhouse and dugout. You could see him high-fiving teammates, pumped up after retiring a batter or recording a save.
On a team of good guys, Koji Uehara was one of the best.
He is what we love in a professional athlete — self-deprecating, genuine, the underdog. Yet, the hero.
Uehara wasn’t supposed to do what he did.
He was signed a year ago to be a setup man. The Red Sox were concerned about the wear and tear on his elbow. They thought they would have to manage his innings, avoid back-to-back appearances.
When they lost their original closer, Joel Hanrahan, to injury, it was Andrew Bailey, their closer from 2012, who stepped in. When they lost Bailey to injury, it was Junichi Tazawa, not Uehara, whom manager John Farrell chose to close.
There was no master plan by the Red Sox to ever have Uehara as their closer, but once it didn’t work with Tazawa, Uehara was the best guy standing.
And he showed them. Boy, did he show them.
And so now, a few months after being a hero, the man who might have been credited for saving the Red Sox season, Uehara threw his first bullpen session of the spring Saturday, a sun-splashed day at JetBlue Park.
When he walked toward the clubhouse, he greeted the many Japanese media members who were waiting. He joked with them and had the usual smile on his face as he answered their questions.
When that media session was over, I asked him, “Has your life changed?”
Uehara speaks English but often uses an interpreter. He knew what I’d asked and a smile appeared on his face.
“Just signing more autographs, getting more recognized,” he said. “More attention. Everything else is the same.”
By the end of last season, you noticed the number of Japanese media increasing. While most of their attention is now focused on Masahiro Tanaka at Yankees camp in Tampa, Uehara is getting more than his share. He went to Tokyo to meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in January and brought the World Series trophy.
“He just told me, ‘Congratulations,’ ” Uehara said. “He’s a busy man, so he didn’t have a lot of time. We spoke briefly. It was a fun day.”
Uehara shrugged off the notion that he pitched too many innings last season (88 total, the most he’s thrown in the major leagues) and therefore won’t be as effective, or that he’ll need to take things slowly this spring. The Red Sox are making him do that, anyway.
He’ll probably get the Mariano Rivera treatment, appearing on a limited basis this spring to get ready for the real thing.
“I used to pitch over 200 innings a year in Japan, so this isn’t that big of a thing for me,” Uehara said.
That was long ago, when he was a starting pitcher. He started briefly (12 starts) with the Orioles when they first signed him in 2009, but the following year he became an effective reliever, a career he never really imagined.
He was good at it. His reputation grew around the league as a guy who doesn’t throw hard but has a nasty split-fingered pitch that freezes hitters. Turns out he has three variations of the splitter, with three different movements. He mixes things up, keeps the hitter guessing which splitter is coming, and his deception is off the charts.
“I feel good,” he said. “I’m just approaching spring training the way they want me to.”
The Red Sox want nothing to happen to their closer, who took over as the closer in late June. Armed with an 88-mile-per-hour fastball and those split-fingered pitches, Uehara was virtually unhittable through the World Series.
Uehara was a strike-throwing machine. He once retired 37 batters in a row. He led the majors during the regular season in ERA (1.09), strikeout-to-walk ratio (11.22), and WHIP (0.57), which was the lowest ever for a pitcher with at least 40 innings (he logged 74⅓).
He threw 74 percent of his pitches for strikes. He went 34⅓ innings without giving up an earned run. He became the first major leaguer to record 100 strikeouts while issuing fewer than 10 walks.
He was 4-1 with a 0.41 ERA (two earned runs in 44⅓ innings) and was 20 of 22 in save opportunities once he took over as the full-time closer. Opponents hit only .097 against him during that time.
He saved seven games in the postseason, three of them (plus a win) in the American League Championship Series against Detroit to earn MVP honors.
He showed his human side when his only down moment of the postseason occurred in Game 3 of the Division Series against Tampa Bay, allowing a walkoff homer to Jose Lobaton. But he rebounded with a four-out save to send Boston to the ALCS.
He saved two games in the World Series and was on the mound to record the final out in a non-save situation during a 6-1 Red Sox win in the clinching Game 6.
Uehara, who will turn 39 April 3, isn’t going to give up his career easily. He says he has no plans to make 2014 his last season.
“I’m going to keep pitching until they tell me not to,” Uehara said.
If he should have another dynamic season, the Red Sox will have to add Uehara to a list of contract extension candidates that already includes Jon Lester and David Ortiz.
The Red Sox decided to protect themselves in case of a Uehara breakdown by signing former Cardinals closer Edward Mujica. But Uehara doesn’t plan on giving up what he worked so long and hard for.
At $4.25 million, the Red Sox understand they got a bargain last season.
Uehara is also tied up for that figure this season, so at some point one wonders if the Sox will seek an extension with the man who saved the 2013 season.
There were no expectations for him, not as a closer anyway.
Now he’ll be the man from Day 1. There may be pressures associated with that, but if there are, he doesn’t wear them.
All you see is a man who can’t stop smiling.