In the first of a new recurring series, John explains his love for the former Red Sox closer.
Koji Uehara is 42 years old. He didn’t make the playoff roster in a battered and pilloried Cubs bullpen. Those two things are not unrelated; feeling his age and the insurmountable toil of every Japanese pitching protege his body has, increasingly, failed him. Uehara’s 2nd September 0.2 inning outing (2 hits, no walks of course) versus Atlanta is likely to be his last in Major League uniform.
He claims he can do more years; but there speaks his inner child, the youngster channeling yakyu spirit to compete in Japan’s fabled Koshien high-school tournaments, where marathon pitch counts are revered in the hushed tones of the country’s tranquil gardens and temples.
But, unlike his contemporary Daisuke Matsuzaka, it was not as an ‘ubermensch’ that Uehara found his calling. Despite joining the Orioles as a number two starter in 2009 (a signing which followed a triple strikeout of none other than Barry Bonds in the 2002 MLB Japan All-Star Series), Uehara became, for his time in Boston, that rarest of commodities – an entirely predictable reliever.
Between the second half of the 2013 season, in which he was garlanded with the ALCS MVP crown, held an ERA+ of 379 barely bested in the modern era, and finished top 10 in Cy Young voting, through to the close of his Red Sox career at the end of 2016, Uehara was the definition of ‘lights out’.
His 2013 season, especially, goes in the book as one of the most dominant ‘closer’ seasons in MLB history. He gave up a trifling 9 runs, a stat underscored by an infinitesimal 9 walks in 74.1IP. His postseason stats are even more eye-watering – 13.2 IP, 1 hit, 1 run, 0 walks. And one pick-off.
Yet to judge Uehara only by garlands is to misunderstand him entirely.
Like Mariano Rivera before him, every hitter knew what Uehara had, but none of them could do anything about it. And it rubbed against the grain. It was ‘no power, none of the time’.
One-by-one batters trudged to the plate to be frozen stiff by a battery of forkballs, eyes lighting up like a pachinko addict’s at balls left in the zone at a tasty 78mph only for it to drop through an imaginary trap door – swing; miss; strike; go again.
Best were the punch-drunk. Rocking on their heels from the whirlygig splits, they heaved hard at ‘high heat’; 84 mph and turning them swift back to the dug out.
Meantime, that passive face remained braced – time for your torture. Breathe out; brace back leg; over-hand flick; swing; miss; strike.
Until that face split, of course.
For Koji Uehara wasn’t just a pitching machine. He was a feeling, and that feeling was joy.
This slight man, no athletic presence, no weapons but guile; he would smite you and then smile.
From 2013 to 2016, the high five ruled the Red Sox dugout; ‘Sandstorm’, splitters, roars, firemen’s carries, ‘Game Over’.
As Boston’s people learned to to feel again in the aftermath of the 2013 marathon bombing, he was their avatar. Quiet stoicism overcome by unboundless, cathartic relief.
The city was still allowed that feeling, allowed to high five.
But that cardinal rule of modern baseball always bites – ‘relievers are good until they aren’t’.
For Koji, perhaps time has finally caught up. Time then, to break his own cardinal rule. Time to allow a walk.