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Saturday, August 31, 2013

For Red Sox, it's case closed with Koji Uehara

Another one in the books. (Jim Rogash)

Smiles and high-fives have become commonplace around Fenway Park these days, but nobody has grinned wider and slapped hands more enthusiastically than the guy most often on the mound at game's end.

Koji Uehara, the 38-year-old Japanese import acquired by Boston as a free agent in December, has been near-perfect during the past two months as a closer for the surprising Red Sox. He compiled a 0.00 ERA in both July and August, and after blowing a save against the Angels on July 6 allowed just six hits in 23 innings over his next 20 appearances.

Uehara now has 15 saves on the season, and has been perfect in 13 of the 15. He is so reliable and so economical with his pitches that last week he was twice called upon by Boston manager John Farrell in the eighth inning to register four-out saves (converting both perfectly).

Sometimes Uehara gets a hand in the dugout.

As a result of his brilliant run, which came after three blown saves in his early days in the role, Uehara has lowered his season ERA to 1.17 and his WHIP to 0.630 -- numbers that along with his 82 strikeouts and 9 walks over 60.1 innings compare very favorably to Jonathan Papelbon's stats during his All-Star career as Boston's closer from 2005-2011. In fact, Uehara's stretch of 20 scoreless games in relief is just one behind Papelbon's best (21 in 2011) and five short of Daniel Bard's club record (set the same year).

In contrast to Papelbon, who had a blazing fastball that neared 100 miles per hour in his heyday, Uehara relies primarily on a forkball and a four-seam heater that tops out around 90. Like Mariano Rivera's cutter, batters know the forkball is usually coming but can do little with the knowledge. Batters swing and miss Koji's offerings 17.2 percent of the time, the top mark in the major leagues.  

Certainly nobody has as much fun finishing games as Uehara, who was primarily a starter during an excellent 10-year career in Japan. Each time he completes the final out of a contest, he pumps his fist, lets out a shout, and then sprints over to his teammates to dole out his high-fives. 
Uehara has a bit of the Bird in him.

For those of us old enough to remember, he is a throwback to Mark "The Bird" Fidrych -- who displayed similar mannerisms during his all-too-brief heyday with the Tigers in the late 1970s. But unlike Fidrych, who was a 21-year-old rookie when he emerged on the national scene, Uehara is grabbing the spotlight with his boyish energy at an age most pitchers are winding down.

Making his run even more impressive is that Uehara -- more often a setup man during four previous big-league seasons -- was Boston's fourth choice as closer this season. Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey both suffered injuries, and fellow Japanese League veteran Junichi Tazawa struggled in the role.

Now that he's gotten his chance to do his hand-slapping on the field at game's end rather than primarily in the dugout after the seventh or eighth innings, Uehara would like to keep doing so as long as possible. 

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