When Red Sox closers Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey went down with season-ending injuries there was much concern surrounding the position, especially with the Sox leading the AL East and possessing one of the better records in all of baseball.
No one on the roster had any real closing experience and most Red Sox fans remembered that the last time the team implemented a "closer by committee" plan, it didn't work out so well. Junichi Tazawa was given a shot, but the pressure got to him and he was more comfortable in a set-up role. Aside from making a trade, the Sox had no other choice but to give Koji Uehara a shot, which they did, and it may have been the best decision they’ve made all season.
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Since taking over the closer’s role on June 26, in save situations, Uehara is 1-0 with 10 saves and a 1.49 ERA with 19 strikeouts. Until Saturday night, all of his saves were perfect appearances. Closing games in Boston might feature some added pressure, but not for Uehara.
“Not really,” Uehara said through an interpreter. “I just feel happy to be throwing in the major leagues.”
The 38-year-old Uehara pitched from 1999-2008 with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan before coming over to the states and pitching for the Orioles followed by the Rangers and the Sox. He is now in his fifth MLB season.
The key for Uehara is his ability to throw strikes and get hitters out quickly. He entered Saturday leading AL relievers in strikeout/walk ratio at 8.8 and was second in strikeouts with 70, as well as opposing batting average with opponents hitting just .150 against him.
Over his last 25 games since June 10, Uehara is 2-0 with a 0.35 ERA while walking three and striking out 36 in that span as well as holding opponents to a .094 batting average. His focus starts before he even takes to the mound.
“I think the key is when I am warming up, I always concentrate on hitting the spots and that carries over into games,” Uehara said.
There is a minor concern with Uehara and the number of appearances and outings he’s made so far this season. As of Sunday he’s appeared in 51 games and thrown 50 1/3 innings. Prior to this year he hadn’t thrown more than 47 innings in a season since 2011 when he tossed 65 innings in 65 appearances.
“I threw a lot of quality innings when I started my major league career as a starting pitcher in the states,” Uehara, who hurled 66 innings in 12 starts for the O's in 2009, recalled. “I don’t worry about it. I just go through my routines and don’t worry about anything else.”
As the Red Sox prepare for what is sure to be an exciting and dramatic playoff race in the last two months, it's a sure bet that Uehara will be facing some pressure-filled situations. This doesn’t seem to faze Uehara as he is just happy to be pitching in the big leagues.
“It’s not just this year, playing in the major leagues has been a dream come true,” he said.
Follow Metro Red Sox beat writer Ryan Hannable on Twitter @hannable84