Koji Uehara is closing in on a record-setting postseason for the Boston Red Sox with a breakout performance that’s left him surprised, scared and sick to his stomach.
The 38-year-old Japanese relief pitcher has five saves through the first two rounds of the playoffs to help the Red Sox reach the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, with Game 1 tonight in Boston. He’s allowed one run over nine innings, with no walks and 13 strikeouts, and was voted the Most Valuable Player of the American League Championship Series.
Uehara took over as Boston’s closer this year and recorded 21 saves to help the Red Sox tie the Cardinals for the best regular-season record in Major League Baseball, at 97-65. He had a 4-1 record, a 1.09 earned run average and 101 strikeouts in 74 1/3 innings, while issuing only nine walks.
“Honestly, I feel almost scared,” Uehara said through a translator after pitching a scoreless ninth inning in Game 6 of the ALCS. “I’ve been doing too well this year. But I just have to keep going at full throttle for the rest of the season.”
Before this year, Uehara had a 19.31 ERA in the postseason. Now he’s almost unhittable, recording two saves in Boston’s 3-1 series win over the Tampa Bay Rays in the opening round of the playoffs and saving three of the team’s four wins in the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers.
With three more saves in the World Series, Uehara would break the record of seven in a single postseason set by John Wetteland with the New York Yankees in 1996 and matched by Troy Percival of the Anaheim Angels and Robb Nen of the San Francisco Giants in 2002, and Brad Lidge of the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008.
“When you talk about his season June on, that’s untouchable,” Dennis Eckersley, a Hall of Fame reliever who had 390 saves, said in a telephone interview.
Uehara this season allowed the lowest percentage of walks and hits per inning of any pitcher in major league history to throw more than 50 innings, breaking Eckersley’s record from 1989.
Sent out to protect a three-run lead in the sixth game against the Tigers, Uehara said later with a laugh that he almost threw up because of the pressure. Eckersley said he could relate to that feeling.
“You get that initial blast of adrenaline,” said Eckersley, whose 15 postseason saves rank third behind the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera (48) and Lidge (18). “You know it’s coming. That’s how I pitched. It makes you as good as you can be if you can handle it. It’s not just being scared. It’s a sort of exhilarating fear.”
Uehara was taken by the Yomiuri Giants with the first pick in Japanese baseball’s draft and captured rookie of the year honors in 1999 after winning 20 games, including a record 15 straight. He pitched for Japan in two Olympics, struck out major league home run leader Barry Bonds three times in a game during the 2002 MLB All-Star Series in Tokyo, and won a World Baseball Classic title with Japan in 2006. Uehara left Japan after the 2008 season and joined the Baltimore Orioles in 2009 at age 34.
“He was always winning at the highest level of the Japanese game and made it clear after he joined the Giants he wanted to go to the major leagues,” said Robert Whiting, an author who has written several books on Japanese baseball.
Bobby Valentine, who managed in Japan and the majors, said he tried to draft Uehara when he was coming out of college.
“He started out his career as the most successful pitcher in Japan,” Valentine said in a telephone interview. “He could have been the first collegiate player to sign a professional contract to come to the United States in about ’97, so he was that sought after. He’s a star, he has pedigree.”
After going 2-4 with a 4.05 ERA in 12 games as a starter in his first year with Baltimore, Uehara moved to the bullpen in 2010 and has flourished since.
In 145 relief appearances for Baltimore and the Texas Rangers from 2010 to 2012, Uehara had a 2.35 ERA with 183 strikeouts in 145 innings. He signed a two-year, $9.25 million contract with Boston as a free agent before this season, joining another Japanese reliever, Junichi Tazawa.
“People in baseball circles knew about Koji,” Red Sox reliever Craig Breslow said in an interview. “He’s been a dominant reliever for a long time. The difference now is that he’s being Koji in the ninth inning, in a major market, for a team that’s going to the World Series. But to say he came out of nowhere would be selling his career short.”
Over a three-week period in August and September, Uehara retired a team-record 37 straight batters, recording 10 more outs than in a perfect game. Without an overpowering fastball he relies on command and control, along with what Eckersley said is the most consistent split-finger pitch since Hall of Fame reliever Bruce Sutter, who played in the majors from 1976 through 1988.
“He’s probably 85 percent strikes,” Eckersley said. “That’s just crazy. And it looks so easy.”