ST. LOUIS — Counting his time in Japan, Red Sox closer Koji Uehara has been playing professional baseball since 1999. Experience has taught him not to be surprised by anything that happens.
Even a World Series champion dumping half its roster and falling into last place nine months later? Yes, even that.
“I feel this is what it is in major league baseball,” Uehara said Thursday before the Red Sox lost to the Cardinals, 5-2. “This can happen to any team and any player can be traded. We had such an accomplishment last season, I think there was sort of a hangover.”
Uehara is now a shiny hood ornament on a rusty heap in the junkyard. His 23 saves are tied for fifth in the AL, as save opportunities are tough to come by. He had the save in Wednesday’s 2-1 win, but three of his previous five appearances were in non-save situations.
His statistics are a little down from last season, but still impressive. Uehara has a 1.39 earned run average and an 0.76 WHIP while averaging 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings.
General manager Ben Cherington said this week Uehara was asked about by other teams before the non-waiver trade deadline. But the Red Sox never came close to trading him.
“Fair amount [of interest]. To be expected given the performance,” Cherington said.
“There were a variety of factors. We felt like it was important to keep him.”
Uehara was stunned at the trade deadline in 2011 when the Orioles traded him to the Texas Rangers to get Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter. He has since resolved to be emotionally prepared for any possibility.
“I wasn’t worried about it,” Uehara said. “I’ve experienced being traded in the past and I didn’t think about.’’
Uehara will be a free agent after the season and the Sox would like to keep him around.
“We haven’t gotten to that,” Cherington said. “He’s a guy who has done a great job for us, certainly one of the guys that we would love to have here. We’ll address that after the season.”
Uehara turns 40 in April and the Sox could use their financial flexibility to make him a one-year qualifying offer [that limit will be approximately $15 million] and avoid a multi-year contract.
However it works, the Sox would want Uehara in their bullpen. That would enable them to focus on improving a rotation now missing Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront.
“I’m obviously happy and honored they feel that way,” Uehara said. “Right now I want to focus on the games that are ahead. Boston has been good for me, but they are one of 30 teams I would consider.”
There was a coda to the Lester trade that generated plenty of smiles in the Red Sox clubhouse. Uehara’s son, 9-year-old Kazuma, had become friendly with Lester and his family. After the trade, Kazuma wrote Lester a letter and enclosed some money he had saved to donate to the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation through Lester’s NVRQT Foundation.
“I’ll never be satisfied,” Uehara said. “But I’m pitching fairly well. I want to keep pitching this way as long as I can.”
“I did feel pretty proud of what Kaz did,” Uehara said.
Lester was touched by the gesture.
“Awesome thing for a 9-year-old to do. Must be the upbringing,” he wrote on Twitter.
For Uehara, it was another reminder of the bond between the players from the 2013 team — one that survives even trades.
“That was a special team and we have a special relationship,” he said. “With the language barrier, I did not get to know everybody as well as I would have liked to. But it was something I will never forget.”