Travis Shaw delivered the biggest knock. David Price logged seven strong innings.
But the most significant moment of the Red Sox’ 7-2 victory over the Padres may have come in the eighth inning, when Koji Uehara delivered a perfect eighth inning with two strikeouts, getting four swings and misses (two on fastballs, two on splitters) among his 13 pitches (11 strikes). Fifty days after his last outing, Uehara impressed.
Uehara’s outing came at a time when the Red Sox are still introducing different variables to the effort to solve their eighth-inning equation. As John Farrell said on WEEI on Wednesday, the 41-year-old may represent the Sox’ best shot to “be that guy” as a full-inning option as a setup man who can attack both righties and lefties.
But in the same interview, Farrell also noted the possibility that against a righthanded-dominant lineup such as the Blue Jays, Brad Ziegler – who recorded two outs and allowed a single in the ninth inning on Wednesday – could prove the option of choice.
Whether either emerges as a lockdown option in front of Craig Kimbrel remains to be seen. The mere fact that the Sox are hoping to feature a bullpen with Uehara and Ziegler near the back end is in its own right utterly fascinating.
There are 149 righthanded pitchers who have thrown at least 30 relief innings this year. According to Fangraphs.com, Ziegler’s 83.9 miles per hour average fastball velocity ranks 149th among that group, one spot behind Uehara’s 87.0 m.p.h. average fastball velocity.
In the era of enormous velocity, in which 29 pitchers have hit triple digits this year, Ziegler and Uehara represent outliers. There’s an expectation that when the bullpen door swings open for the eighth, a pitcher with mid- or high-90s octane will make his way to the mound.
That’s part of the reason why it’s so straightforward to fathom Joe Kelly in such a role: He represents a prototype. Uehara and Ziegler defy it.
“I never looked at it as you have to throw harder. I think that mentality has come on a lot in the last 10 years or so. Before, it was a matter of, yeah, you had to hit 90 on the gun to get drafted, but if you could get outs, you’d have a shot. Now, it’s not that way,” said Ziegler. “It doesn’t matter if guys are 89-92 getting outs. They’re not a prospect anymore at that level.”
Of course, the fact that Ziegler typically sat in the high-80s to low-90s probably contributed to the A’s interest in converting him to a submariner. He didn’t feature distinguishing stuff as a conventional pitcher, and so the A’s elected to look for a delivery that separated him.
Initially, his knuckle-scraping delivery (similar to that of Chad Bradford) yielded velocity readings in the high-70s. Oakland asked Ziegler to raise his arm slot slightly, he sat in the mid-80s in a single bullpen session, and voila! A career was set in motion. Ziegler now pays no attention to his radar gun readings, recognizing that command and movement (in that order) are his most important attributes.
“If you asked me what my average velocity was, it would be a complete guess,” said Ziegler. “I couldn’t even tell you how hard I throw. My dad told me, ‘You’ve had a couple outings here recently where you’ve thrown harder than you have all year.’ I had no idea. It made me wonder if that was leading to some of the command issues I’ve had. … For me, movement and command is always going to be more important than velocity.”
For Uehara, movement, command, and deception determine whether he will be able to succeed while living with a mid-80s fastball. If his high spin rate can permit a fastball just above the top of the strike zone to look like it will be one down the middle, then he can miss bats; ditto if a splitter looks like a fastball out of his hand.
The ability of the Red Sox to solidify their late innings likely will rely more on the art of pitching than pure stuff. At a time when 95-98 m.p.h. pitchers are commonplace, the Sox instead will hope that they can find a different path to success. For Uehara and his team, Wednesday represented a first step.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him Twitter@alexspeier.