If Boston Red Sox closer Koji Uehara hasn’t had the best year of any ninth-inning man since Tony LaRussa made the three-out save fashionable in 1988, he’s right up there.
So when the 39-year-old reliever allows a run, or even allows a baserunner for that matter, it turns heads. When he allows multiple runs over the course of a few outings — as has happened in his last three appearances — it turns even more heads.
It comes with the territory of converting 42 of 44 save opportunities, allowing four earned runs on 44 base runners and 117 strikeouts over 89 2/3 innings over the course of a calendar year. When something never happens, it becomes a surprise when it actually happens.
As has been the case in Uehara’s last three appearances, going back to last Wednesday, when he gave up a home run to Chris Parmelee in the top of the 10th inning against the Minnesota Twins, a game that turned out to be a 2-1 Red Sox victory.
Uehara got a mulligan Saturday afternoon. Same situation: tie game in the 10th inning… except there was a runner on base and he was pitching to Oakland Athletics bats. John Farrell gave Uehara the ball expecting to extend the game to the 11th inning, as he’d allowed just 9 of 34 inherited runners to score since joining the Red Sox in 2013, including the postseason.
It didn’t pan out that way. Uehara left the first pitch — an 88 mph fastball — high in the zone to Coco Crisp, which he ripped down the right field line, scoring Alberto Callaspo from second base and giving the A’s the win.
Sunday was the opportunity for another mulligan. Uehara was given the ball with a two-run cushion to begin the ninth inning. That cushion quickly evaporated, with Stephen Vogt and Chris Gentry connecting on Uehara mistakes, tying the game and giving Uehara his first blown save after converting 31 straight chances.
While he got the win Sunday after David Ortiz hit a home run in the 10th to put Boston ahead, the damage was done. The line looks bad. Three innings, three runs, four hits, three home runs, and allowing the only runner he inherited to score. It’s a line that triggers flashbacks of Curt Schilling closing games for the Sox back in 2005.
That said, there should be no red flags concerning the Japanese righty.
Take the bottom of the 10th inning on Sunday, in which Uehara came back to pitch following the rough ninth. Had you just tuned in at that point having not watched the Red Sox in six days and weren’t aware of Uehara’s struggles, you’d have never thought he’d struggled based off what was seen in that inning.
Uehara sat down Oakland 1-2-3 on 11 pitches in that inning. He quickly retired Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson — Oakland’s two best hitters — before getting pitcher Sean Doolittle (the A’s had no bench players left) to ground to second to end the game.
It was the short memory you want from your closer. The short memory that made the likes of Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and Lee Smith so great at what they did. Uehara had a tough ninth, then flipped the switch to come back out and pitch a dominant 10th.
As good as Uehara has been psychologically, he hasn’t been that bad physically. The numbers do little justice for how he’s pitched. While his fastball has seen a fairly notable drop in velocity from an average of 89.2 mph in 2013 to 87.9 this season, his secondary pitches have had good movement. His command continues to be pinpoint. He’s just missed on a few pitches, and hitters have taken advantage.
He hasn’t put up ‘Koji numbers’ in the past few times out, but that doesn’t mean he’s losing his touch. Far from it.