FORT MYERS, Fla. — Now that he feels healthy again and is signed to a two-year contract, Red Sox closer Koji Uehara was ready to admit the truth. It was an injury, not simply overwork, that led to his sudden downturn last season.
“It was more physical,” Uehara said Monday. “I didn’t talk about it at that time. But I think I’m over it. I’m not going to go into specifics but it wasn’t fatigue.”
The line of demarcation is pretty clear when looking back at last season. Uehara had a 1.27 ERA and 0.76 WHIP through Aug. 15. Opponents were hitting .182 against the All-Star and he had converted 26 of 28 save chances.
In the six games that followed, from Aug. 16 to Sept. 4, Uehara pitched six times and allowed 10 earned runs on 14 hits over 4⅔ innings. Opponents were 14 of 28 against him with eight extra-base hits, four of them home runs. Uehara blew three saves in that stretch.
Uehara’s split-finger fastball stayed up in the strike zone, a sign of his inability to finish off pitches with the proper arm speed. While he did not discuss the exact nature of his injury on Monday, Uehara was receiving treatment on his shoulder at the time.
Uehara was shut down until Sept. 12 and pitched only three more times, all in non-save situations. He was almost perfect, allowing one hit over three scoreless innings with no walks and five strikeouts.
Via translator C.J. Matsumoto, Uehara said the break was necessary because of the injury.
“Looking back, I felt that I probably needed the rest,” he said. “I felt good after. I’m not going to look back and wonder what I should have done. I’m just going to look towards the future.”
A team source said the Red Sox were not aware of an injury to Uehara.
The Red Sox were convinced of Uehara’s good health, signing him to a two-year, $18 million deal on Oct. 30 before he could enter free agency. It was a big commitment to a pitcher who will be 40 on April 3.
“We had a chance to examine Koji at the end of the year and spent quite a bit of time talking to him and looking at what happened,” general manager Ben Cherington said at the time. “After that process, we felt really, really comfortable with where he was.”
Returning to the Red Sox was Uehara’s intention all along. He has a 1.75 ERA over 137 games in two seasons for the Sox with a 10.65-1 strikeout/walk ratio.
“No doubt at all,” he said. “It was the only team that I talked to. I was pretty sure if I was going to sign, it was going to be with the Red Sox. Since the Red Sox had an offer for multiple years, that erased all doubts.”
For Uehara, a two-year deal at this stage of his career was important. He has spoken about pitching well into his 40s but realistically may have only a few years left.
Cherington and manager John Farrell have said Uehara will be the closer. But he’s not taking that for granted.
“I don’t feel that it’s guaranteed, the closer role,” he said. “I have to earn it, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
Uehara had his usual offseason, starting a throwing program at the end of November. He arrived here Saturday and took the field with his teammates Monday with his customary smile. Uehara fired a series of fastballs in the bullpen, standing just in front of the rubber while Cherington watched.
The Red Sox have a number of new faces in their bullpen, enough that Uehara joked that he will have to arrange some introductions.
“I’m not really sure who’s returning,” he said.