Koji Uehara finally makes it to All-Star Game
MINNEAPOLIS — Satchel Paige was 46 when he made the All-Star team for the first time in 1952. The game was called because of rain after five innings and he didn’t get in.
Old Satch returned to the game a year later and did pitch. But Red Sox closer Koji Uehara, a first-time All-Star at the age of 39, doesn’t want to take any chances.
Uehara joked that he would be happy to face one batter in the seventh inning for the American League Tuesday night at Target Field. Just a sliver of the spotlight would be fine with him.
“It was never a goal of mine to become an All-Star in the majors,” Uehara said. “It never occurred to me that I would be selected.”
But there was Uehara at a table in a corner of a vast hotel ballroom Monday when the AL players met with the media, sitting with his 8-year-old son, Kaz. Red Sox teammate Jon Lester was a few feet away. Angels star Mike Trout was across from them and Derek Jeter a little further down the row.
“It’s great that Koji is here,” said Detroit second baseman Ian Kinsler, who played with Uehara in Texas. “He deserves it. I think he’s one of the most underrated players around.”
Uehara has been one of the game’s best relievers since the Orioles put him in the bullpen in 2010. He had a 1.93 earned run average over the four seasons that followed and averaged 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings. But All-Star recognition never came his way.
Part of it was based on his role. Uehara had only 14 career saves before the Red Sox made him their closer midway through last season and he helped deliver an unexpected World Series championship.
Sox manager John Farrell believes there were style reasons, too.
“It’s directly related to velocity,” he said. “The numbers he put up were as dominant as anybody else’s but he didn’t have the typical power stuff. Because Koji throws 88-90, he didn’t have the cachet a guy in the mid to upper 90s will have.”
Brave closer Craig Kimbrel, who regularly hits 100 with his fastball, is glad to see Uehara getting some recognition.
“I saw him pitch against us and he’s pretty filthy,” Kimbrel said. “He doesn’t throw hard but he moves the ball well. That split-finger is disgusting. He comes off the field with a win and in the closer’s role, that’s what you have to do. How you do that doesn’t matter.”
Uehara had better velocity earlier in his career but was never overwhelming.
“I know for a fact that my style of pitching is command and deception,” he said via translator C.J. Matsumoto. “I would love to throw really hard if I could. But that’s the card that I was dealt.”
Uehara makes it work. He has 18 saves in 20 chances this season and a 1.65 ERA. Over 43⅔ innings he has allowed only 27 hits.
“I faced him when we were in Boston and he struck me out. I had three fastballs to hit and I still I can’t believe I didn’t absolutely annihilate one,” said Adam Jones, a teammate of Uehara’s in Baltimore and again Tuesday.
“He has that invisi-ball. A lot of hitters around the league talk about that. I don’t know what it is. It’s 90-91 and acts more like a 94 or 95 mile an hour fastball. Then that split, it is what it is. It’s a devastating pitch.”
Red Sox catcher David Ross has to stifle a laugh at times when catching Uehara.
“The hitters know what is coming and they can’t do much with it,” he said. “He’s got such good command. You never see guys who can throw split-fingers to both sides of the plate. He knows what his pitches are going to do. He’s not rolling the dice.”
Uehara is the sixth-oldest first-time All-Star in history. The second-oldest was Tim Wakefield, who was 42 when he was selected in 2009.
“I’m thrilled for Koji because I know what an unbelievable feeling it was for me,” Wakefield said. “To get that recognition and be in that clubhouse is a special thing. It’s not easy to get there.”
Wakefield threw a knuckleball and relied on command and guile even more than Uehara.
“What he does, it’s underrated,” Wakefield said. “The Red Sox tried three different closers before they got to him and he was blowing people away. He’s effective the way he pitches and I love to watch it.”
Uehara is making $4.25 million this season, less than 11 of his teammates. He will be a free agent after the season but in a unique position. Uehara will have a track record of success yet will be 40 in April.
“If he wants to pitch into his 40s, another two or three years, he could do that the way he throws,” Jones said. “If he stays in shape, why not?”
Uehara would be a valuable trade chip for the struggling Red Sox, but team officials have said they would prefer to bring him back in 2015.
Uehara is generally a cheerful interview subject. But he grew serious when free agency came up.
“The experience with the Red Sox has been fun,” he said. “The World Series and now being selected an All-Star. But I don’t have any specific teams that I want to play for. Any team that wants me the most is fine.”
Uehara has a home in Baltimore and for two years has stayed in a hotel during Red Sox homestands. At this stage in his career, he’s looking for the best fit.
For now, the hope is to get in the game on Tuesday, something Farrell is sure to take care of. Seeing Uehara against a trio of National League stars would be entertaining.
“I can only pitch one way,” he said. “It’s not going to be very fast.”
Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com.