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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. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Walpole Joe Morgan weighs in on 2013 Red Sox

Joe Morgan -- sill popular, and still watching.

No matter how the Red Sox finish up their surprising season, they will be hard-pressed to top the summer of 1988 for excitement. Those of us who watched 25 years ago as the Sox rebounded from a lackluster 43-42 start to go on the hottest stretch in team history will never forget the summer of Morgan's Magic.

Recently I had a chance to sit down with the architect of that incredible turnaround, former Red Sox manager and lifelong Walpole, Mass. resident Joe Morgan. He's been removed from the game at the big league level for more than two decades, since his very unpopular firing by Sox ownership after the 1991 season, but at age 83 he still has his sharp mind, quick wit, and the good sense that helped him win a record 12 straight games to start his managerial career.

The streak eventually reached 19 wins of his first 20 contests, which launched Boston into first place and to an improbable AL East title. Joe won another East crown in 1990, but the Sox were swept in the ALCS by the Oakland A's both years, who he admits now “were just a better team than us.” A second-place finish in 1991 led to his firing, after which Morgan warned that "these guys aren't as good as you think." He was right; the '92 Sox finished last under manager Butch Hobson.

Back in '88, the Pride of Walpole was in the zone.

These days Joe gets to a handful of Red Sox games at Fenway each season, and watches the rest of them in the basement of the modest ranch house he's shared with his wife, Dottie, since Ted Williams roamed left field at Fenway. Morgan has enjoyed watching the current Sox club exceed all expectations, and says it reminds him (gulp) of the 1986 team that racked up a number of weird, early-season victories en route to the AL pennant and an ill-fated World Series against the Mets. 

Remember, they did go 95-65.

He was a coach on that club under John MacNamara, and he remembers saying early on, “Mac, if we're winning games like this now, we're going to have a hell of a year.' And we did.”

Morgan isn't sure what will become of the 2013 Red Sox, but had some insights to offer:

On whether Clay Buchholz can come back
"I'm not counting on him, for one reason. Even if he comes back, you don't know if he is going to be successful right away. It's almost September, and this crazy thing he's got... He's had more problems. Every year it's something – stomach ache, back ache."

On Jon Lester's inconsistencies
"He doesn't get ahead of the hitters enough – that's one thing. I thought he started throwing too many cutters, and he lost that real good curve he used to have. He got to the point where he was trying to nit-pick all the time. Get ahead of the guys! If you send ten men to the plate in the big leagues today, maybe three of them will swing at the first pitch. So throw the damn thing in there with a little heat, and get ahead of them!"

On which current Sox pitcher would start a must-win game for him, if Buchholz wasn't available
"I haven't seen enough of [Jake] Peavy, but I'd be leaning toward him. Lester has been so inconsistent."

Morgan's must-win starter -- for now.

On popular infielder Jose Iglesias, traded after a surprisingly hot start at the plate
"I had not seen him play at all before this year. I watched him a lot in spring training, and I came away with one thing about him: he had enough bat speed to be a decent hitter and play in the big leagues every day. I still think that.

"I was little shocked by it [the trade]. But then you figure you've got [Xander] Bogaerts coming up, and [Stephen] Drew – a good fielder – who is going to be here the rest of the year. Plus you've got Middlebrooks is coming back at third, which is good."

On walk-off hits
"Those guys should be careful. They keep celebrating like that and somebody is going to get hurt. I notice that some guys now are doing a little stutter-step before they get smacked around, so nobody steps on their feet."

Better be careful...

On David Ortiz's comeback from injury
"Oh yeah, that showed me something, I was surprised his ankle was still hurting him when the season started, after all those months. He looked really doubtful. They pitch around him all right, but he's still got it going. Incredible."

On the “Morgan's Magic” reunion this year at Fenway
"Those guys who came back really had a great time. It was fun seeing them too. Big Lee Smith – he's a character. I like him a lot. Oil Can, Dewey, all of them. They were all glad they came, and so was I."

Morgan had a blast at his reunion.

How about your first pitch (or pitches) to current manager John Farrell?
"I've been having trouble with my right [throwing] arm, so I've had to use my left arm to raise it above my head. My son Billy told me to go sidearm – just sling it up there sidearm. Well I went about a mile left of John with that throw, so I said, 'Give me another one of those things.' This time I raised my arm up with the left hand, and I got it in there."

Does it feel like 25 years since 1988?
"No, but I've been lucky. I hear guys talking about the “golden years,” and they're sick all the time, or their wives are sick. I've had 25 great years.

"The thing was, I knew when my days with the Red Sox were over, that was it. I was going to roam around, not take another baseball job, and have fun in this life. I told [then-Red Sox president] John Harrington that if they didn't fire me, it was probably going to be my last year anyway. Planes, hotels, I had enough of that routine. There are only so many years you have left, and you want to enjoy them.

"Some guys [who retire] complain they have nothing to do. I have plenty to do. Gardening, golfing, seeing the kids and grandkids, going to the Kentucky Derby, whatever. I golf about two or three times a week, with whomever shows up. And of course I watch the ballgames."

Friday, August 16, 2013

A-Rod back at Fenway Park: Once more with loathing

The Material Boy is back.

Dust off those Madonna masks and get out your biggest syringes, Boston fans, A-Rod is coming to town -- maybe for the last time in pinstripes.

Bucky Bleeping Dent and Aaron Bleeping Boone pierced the hearts of Red Sox Nation with one swing of their bats, but there is no player more universally reviled at Fenway Park than Alex Emmanuel Rodriguez. It isn't just that A-Rod is a steroid guy, or that he lied about it numerous times, or even that he is the lone accused doper trying to fight the MLB over his suspension. It's his total body of smug, selfish play as a Yankee that has kept everyone from bleacherites to box seat gentry on Yawkey Way booing for the past decade.

Nobody jeered the handsome, 18-year-old Mariner who made his big-league debut at Fenway Park against the Vaughn-Valentin-Greenwell Red Sox in July 1994. Reports are that the crowd politely applauded Seattle's number-nine batter when he singled off Boston's Sergio Valdez for his first MLB hit. 
A-Rod and Junior

By his 21st birthday, which he celebrated with a home run while batting in front of Ken Griffey, Jr., Rodriguez was a superstar. Through his years in Seattle and in Texas with the Rangers, he was a feared and respected Boston opponent -- but not a villain.

The hate started in the winter of 2003-04. New York had just done in the Sox during an epic ALCS, and rumors leaked that Boston was going to make a three-way trade with the Angels and Rangers that would send outfielder/slugger Manny Ramriez to Texas and bring reigning MVP Rodriguez here. Since A-Rod was a Gold Glove winner at shortstop, local icon Nomar Garciaparra's position, Nomar would then be traded to the White Sox for All-Star Magglio Ordonez -- who would slip into Manny's old spot in left field. 

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was steamed that Boston was poised to beat out his team for the game's best player, but he didn't have long to worry. Red Sox boss John Henry wanted to lighten some of Rodriguez's  $252 million contract in $28 million of deferred payments, and although A-Rod's agent Scott Boras initially went along with the plan, he was talked out of it by MLB Player's Association Deputy Director Gen Orza -- and Henry backed out of a less-desirable deferred-payment offer. 

In swooped King George with a trade offer of his own -- Alfonso Soriano and a throw-in for Rodriguez and cash -- and just like that A-Rod was a Yankee.

Smug as a bug in a rug.

Making the move even more excruciating for Boston fans was this: because New York already had an All-Star shortstop in Derek Jeter, and because ALCS hero Boone had blown out his knee playing pick-up basketball in the offseason, Rodriguez simply moved over to third where he would be a constant reminder of the previous year's torment.

Rodriguez was instantly Public Enemy No. 1 at Fenway, and it only got worse when the Sox and Yanks tangled there on July 24. Boston starter Bronson Arroyo hit A-Rod on the elbow with a sinker, and when A-Rod started toward the mound with menacing eyes, he was intercepted by catcher Jason Varitek. The two jawed it out, after which Tek shoved his glove in Rodriguez's face in a moment that would forever signify the start of Boston's late-season push to a World Series title.
Take that, A-Fraud!

Could it get still worse? Sure. 

In Game Six of the Boston-New York ALCS rematch that October, at Yankee Stadium, Arroyo and A-Rod were key figures in another big moment. With Boston leading, 4-2, in the 8th and Jeter on first, Rodriguez hit a dinky grounder to the left of the mound; Arroyo gloved it, went to tag A-Rod running down the line, and suddenly the ball was lose and rolling into right field as Jeter sprinted home.

For a moment, it looked like the beginning of another Boston postseason collapse, but Red Sox Manager Terry Francona came out to protest and slow-motion replays showed what most initially missed -- A-Rod illegally slapping the ball out of Arroyo's glove. Rodriguez (holding his hands up in a "who me?" gesture as he stood defiantly at second base) was declared out on interference, Jeter was put back at first. The Sox went on to win the game and of course the series.

Actually, I find this photo an insult to women.

By the next morning a picture showing the exact moment of the slap, with a purse photo-shopped into A-Rod's hand, was making its way across New England, Rodriguez's fate as Boston's biggest villain was sealed. 

When rumors swirled that the married slugger was dating Madonna in summer 2008, Red Sox fans came to Fenway with Madonna masks; when he admitted in 2009 to doing steroids while with the Rangers due to self-imposed pressure to live up to a $252 million contract, they waved posters declaring him a cheater and a baby.

Now A-Rod is back again, for the first time since Commissioner Bud Selig announced he would be suspended for the remainder of this season and all of 2014 for further violations of the steroid policy. He's playing while appealing the commissioner's decision, but many speculate he will soon retire rather than accept his fate.
Yanks fans may soon get their wish.

I have always taught my kids not to boo any player on the Red Sox or other teams. I've covered enough high school, college, and minor league games to know that every guy out on that field is one of the best in the world, and deserves your respect. This especially goes for class acts like Jeter and Mariano Rivera.

There is, however, one exception to my rule. We won't be at any of the games this weekend, but my kids can boo as loud as they want at the radio or TV when A-Fraud steps to the plate.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Summer of 69 -- and beyond -- as Sox continue record pace

Another one in the books. (Bob Levey)

The Red Sox won their 69th game last night, a total that not only leads the majors (with Atlanta) but also marks the same number of victories they captured all of last season. This in itself is an impressive accomplishment.

Amid all the talk of walk-offs and comebacks, however, an even more monumental feat has managed to thus far fly under the radar: 

Statistically, this could be the greatest one-season turnaround in modern team history.

Many Sox fans are familiar with the most famous such season in franchise annals -- the Carl Yastrzemski-led 1967 "Impossible Dream" team which leaped from ninth place the year before to an American League pennant. That club reversed its record, from 70-92 to 92-70, and rejuvenated Boston baseball in the process. 

In '67, Yaz and the Sox filled Fenway.

Numerically, that was a  22-game improvement -- the best one-year bump for a Sox squad since the advent of the 162-game schedule in 1961. Manager Dick Williams, like John Farrell this year, surpassed all expectations in his first season at the helm for Boston  

The 2013 Walk-Off Wizards, with a mark of 69-46, have a winning percentage of .600. If they were to continue at that same clip over their remaining 47 games they will finish with 97 victories -- and a one-year improvement of 28 games.

"I hope we pass last year," Farrell joked after last night's game, referring to the 69-win mark the current club now shares with its predecessors. 

John Farrell: Dick Williams redux?

If Farrell's overachievers can capture 23 more victories, and get to 92, they will topple the Impossible Dreamers as Boston's greatest "rebounders" of the 162-game era. 

Of course it will likely take more wins than 92 to assure a playoff berth out of the challenging AL East, and the record would be a hallow one if Boston finishes out of the postseason for a fourth straight year. 

Nothing should ever dim the importance of the 1967 team in franchise history, but this club deserves its full due -- and fans hope that a wild celebration like Yaz and his teammates enjoyed after clinching the '67 pennant is coming this fall. 

More "pandemonium on the field" to come?