Ah, if only there was a restrospect button to push.
One in which Ben Cherington could say, “Why did I spend all that money and talent to acquire Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan when I had the best closer in baseball for $4.5 million?”
But there’s no such thing. And so teams do the trial and error thing, then sometimes find lightning in a bottle.
That’s what Koji Uehara has been.
At this point, which closer would you rather have right now among the contenders. OK, Mariano Rivera. Anyone else?
Jim Johnson has blown nine saves in Baltimore. Fernando Rodney has blown eight in Tampa Bay. Joe Nathan in Texas? Rather have Koji. Grant Balfour entered Friday 33 for 35 in Oakland in save chances. Pretty good. But right now, the Red Sox have one of the best.
Uehara is fearless. Throws strike after strike. He’s 38 years old and he knows he’s at the end of his career, so he lets it all fly. There may not be a closer who has more fun or who energizes a team more when he comes in with a bundle of energy and mows down the opposition, then celebrates as if he’s just won the World Series.
You’ve seen closers like Jonathan Papelbon with hyped-up, nasty demeanors when they take the mound. Uehara comes in happy and gets happier with every strike he throws and every out he makes, to the point he’s giddy when it’s all over.
Uehara recorded a four-out save against the White Sox on Friday night. The strike-throwing machine threw 17 pitches, 14 for strikes. You can tell when he doesn’t throw a strike he gets irked at himself.
“It’s all about getting 27 outs as a team,” Uehara said. “Baseball is all about throwing strikes.”
If that’s Japanese philosophy, it’s a good one. Uehara lives by it. His strike-throwing capability is why manager John Farrell can ask and receive those valuable four-out saves. You can see why Farrell did Friday night. Junichi Tazawa has struggled of late and although he entered in the eighth and got an out, Farrell turned to Franklin Morales to pitch to Adam Dunn, then Uehara to pitch to Paul Konerko.
Uehara got Konerko to fly to left field, then came on in the ninth and struck out Avisail Garcia and Jeff Keppinger on a combination of fastballs and splitters before getting Dayan Viciedo to ground to shortstop for the final out.
In recording his 15th save (he’s blown three) and his third career save of at least four outs (and second this season), Uehara had his 20th consecutive scoreless outing under his belt, a span of 23 innings.
He’s the fourth Red Sox pitcher to string together 20 consecutive scoreless outings, joining Daniel Bard (25 in 2011), Papelbon (21 in 2011), and Ugueth Urbina (20 in 2002). During the streak, Uehara has allowed just seven base runners — a walk, two doubles, and four singles.
Asked after the game if he’d ever seen a reliever with this kind of stretch, Farrell said “No.”
Uehara, who has a 0.63 WHIP, the best for a reliver in the majors, was joking with reporters after the game. He was asked what he attributes his great second-half stretch to and he said, “I think it was playing golf during the All-Star break. I think it was that one outing.”
Is he feeling this is the best stretch in his career?
“I forget how I felt in past years,” Uehara quipped.
What’s the difference about being a closer rather than a set-up man?
“It’s all about knowing when I come in. That’s the only difference.”
A man of few words, but funny nonetheless.
The other thing he’s doing is acting as a mentor for Tazawa.
Tazawa, who has made 60 appearances, has been a very good set-up man for Uehara, but lately he’s struggled.
Farrell said Tazawa is having trouble with his splitter. He doesn’t have the movement he had earlier, and he’s getting hit.
“I agree with the manager. I’m getting advice from Koji on how to grip it,” Tazawa said.
Uehara may be called upon for more four-out saves in the future. Farrell said that because he’s such a strike-thrower and economizes his pitches so well, Uehara is more of a candidate for four outs than most closers. Farrell certainly doesn’t want to make a habit of it because that’s a good way to wear him down. But Farrell is not going to be afraid to do it.
That’s a far cry from when the Red Sox first obtained Uehara. Then there was concern Uehara’s innings had to be managed and that he couldn’t pitch back-to-back games because he was too fragile at this point in his career. All of those myths have been shattered. Uehara may be more durable than anyone on the staff.
Uehara scoffed at those criticisms in spring training, feeling he had no idea where they had come from.
The Red Sox resisted the temptation for the longest time to make Uehara their closer. After Hanrahan got hurt, they went back to Bailey. After Bailey got hurt they went to Tazawa, and after they knew Tazawa wasn’t ready for the job, they finally gave it to Uehara and there’s been no looking back.
Next year, in fact, now that Uehara’s 2014 option has kicked in, he will start the season as Boston’s closer.
There will be no more searching for Papelbon’s replacement. He is here.
If only the Red Sox could have pushed that retrospect button a little sooner.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.