Koji Uehara has retired, but his stint in Boston won’t be forgotten
TORONTO — Former Red Sox closer Koji Uehara announced his retirement from professional baseball in a press conference in Tokyo on Monday. Well-liked and a bit eccentric, Uehara is the type of personality that leaves those who have spent time around him with plenty of stories to tell.
Pitching coach Dana LeVangie, for instance, didn’t skip a beat Monday afternoon when asked to name his favorite Koji memory.
It was from the 2013 World Series. Uehara was about to go in to close out a game, but he felt a little sleepy. He came to LeVangie with a request.
“He asked me to slap him in the face,” LeVangie said. “And I did.”
Uehara wanted a jolt of energy before he went in to close. LeVangie thought it was a weird request, but this was a player who was full of weird requests and usually knew what he needed. And once he got to the mound, Uehara seemed plenty energized.
The righty pitched in five of six World Series games in 2013, never gave up a run, and allowed only two hits. In 13 appearances that postseason, he allowed only one run. Uehara didn’t win the closing job until late June, but went on to record 21 saves in 24 opportunities with a 1.09 ERA.
“Huge. Huge part,” LeVangie said. “Two of our guys got injured, our late-inning guys, and I think as soon as he took over the closer role, our team basically settled into being who we are and we just rolled from that point. It allowed everyone in the bullpen to get in comfortable roles. They were really good, the bullpen was really good once he took over.”
Xander Bogaerts, who was called up during the 2013 season, said he didn’t think the Red Sox would have won the World Series without Uehara.
“The ’13 team was a big success because of him,” Bogaerts said.
Bogaerts said when he thinks of Uehara, he thinks of the maniacal high fives he doled out in the dugout or on the field after completing a save, or of his odd-couple friendship with David Ortiz , who liked to pick Uehara up in the air and throw him over his shoulder whenever they had something to celebrate.
“Him and David,” Bogaerts said, chuckling. “He had that different personality.”
Uehara was most recently pitching for the Yomiuri Giants in Japan. He said in announcing his retirement that he could no longer pitch effectively.
“I want to end my 21-year baseball career today,” Uehara told Japanese media. “There is a part of me that wants to play on, but I decided from the beginning [of the season] that this is my last.”
The 44-year-old, who started his professional career with the Yomiuri Giants in 1999, was the oldest player with a current contract in the NPB, the professional baseball league in Japan.
“I thought the first three months of the season were crucial. I was feeling very conflicted because I wasn’t called up to the top team and at the same time I was unable to play well at the farm team,” he said. The Japan Times wrote that Uehara got emotional during the press conference.
During his time in the majors, Uehara stifled hitters with a split-fingered fastball they weren’t used to seeing.
“Amazing individual. Amazing talent,” LeVangie said. “Two pitches, and he maybe maxed out at 90 miles an hour. Incredible stuff. His ability to command the baseball was as good as anyone.”
Even though his approach was uncommon, LeVangie said Uehara was an extremely easy player to work with.
“Extremely simple, because you know, he threw a really good high fastball,” LeVangie said. “It got above hitters’ swing all the time and he had a split that he could throw — which is unheard of — a split that he could throw in the zone and underneath the zone, so he had incredible swing and miss options above and below. At that time, that year, the hitters just couldn’t pick him up.”
Uehara also played for the Orioles, Rangers and Cubs during his nine MLB seasons. His last MLB season was 2017 in Chicago, after which he went back to playing in Japan.
He is eighth in Red Sox history in saves with 79, and surely up there in the rankings of most memorable teammates for the players and coaches he shared a clubhouse with from 2013–2016.
“A fun guy to be around,” LeVangie said. “He really was. Day in and day out, fun guy. He had fun with everyone, everyone loved him. He just, he was an easy guy to talk to and get along with and a great fit for our team at that time because we were in need and he stepped up bigtime.”
Free day for phenom
Blue Jays rookie phenom Vladimir Guerrero Jr. had the day off Monday, but was named the American League Player of the Week.
Guerrero batted .333 (7-for-21) with five runs scored, four home runs, three walks, and a .905 slugging percentage in six games last week. The Red Sox will face him soon enough.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora, asked about Guerrero, said he worries about the weight of expectations that fall on players like him at a young age. Cora prefaced his comment by saying he was speaking as a baseball fan, not as an opposing manager.
“Let him be,” Cora said. “He’s going to be OK. We put so much pressure on these kids.”
After seeing players like Alex Bregman adjust to the majors with all eyes watching, Cora was cognizant of the inevitable highs and lows. Guerrero was 9 for 47 (.191) in his first 13 games before breaking out in San Francisco last Tuesday.
With lefty David Price reinstated from the 10-day injured list and catcher Sandy Leon from the paternity leave list, the Red Sox optioned catcher Oscar Hernandez and righty Josh Smith to Triple A Pawtucket . . . J.D. Martinez had the day off for the Red Sox, and Cora said that days off for Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts are coming, too. “We’ll take care of them and keep them fresh,” he said . . . The Blue Jays left flowers and an empty seat in the press box to honor late Globe columnist Nick Cafardo . . . Jackie Bradley Jr.’s home run in the sixth inning was his first in 152 regular-season at-bats dating back to 2018 . . . The Sox have won 14 of 17 games at Rogers Centre, averaging 6.5 runs.