During the 2012 season, the Boston Red Sox won 69 games. It was their worst season in 47 years and their first losing season since 1997. One of the many problems with the team was the fact that they did not have a closer at the back of their bullpen to be their stopper. The closer is a guy that comes out of the bullpen with a three-run lead or less and shuts the door to secure the victory.
In December 2011, after an epic September collapse and with one of the best closers in the team's history (Jonathan Papelbon) signing with the Philadelphia Phillies, the Red Sox traded for Oakland A's closer Andrew Bailey. At the end of spring training it was announced that Bailey would be placed on the disabled list with an injury to his right thumb that would require surgery. Bailey would be unavailable to the Red Sox until after the All-Star break at the earliest.
Manager Bobby Valentine and pitching coach (at the time) Bob McClure had to piece together the bullpen at the end of games and used the often unhinged Alfredo Aceves as the team's closer. In 33 save opportunities that season Aceves blew eight saves and had a 5.36 ERA. He led the major leagues in blown saves.
Vicente Padilla, who made the team as a long reliever/spot starter at the beginning of the season also got the ball in the ninth inning on a few occasions and didn't perform much better. In five opportunities, Padilla blew four saves. Even when Bailey returned in mid-August and returned to the closer role, much to the shagrin of Aceves (that's a different column for a different time) he blew three saves in nine opportunities.
Koji Uehara was signed by the Red Sox on December 18, 2012. He was not signed as the closer for the team. Although he saved 13 games for the Baltimore Orioles back in 2010, since then he has been in the role of the setup man for his subsequent seasons in Baltimore and with the Texas Rangers. He was brought in to be that stopper in the seventh and eighth inning as a bridge to Joel Hanrahan, whom had been acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates to close for the Red Sox.
Hanrahan was shelled in the few outings he had at the end of ball games for Boston. He only saved four games in the first month of the season and in early May was placed on the DL for the second time and it was announced that he would miss the rest of the season with a forearm injury. Bailey, who would battle with Uehara for the setup role was thrust into the closer role with which he had success in Oakland.
That role as the team's closer didn't last very long as by late June he had blown three saves in a five-game stretch and had already had another DL stint on his resume. What was once a blazing 95 mile-per-hour fastball was a listless and flat 93 MPH. A guy that had averaged a "swings and misses" rate of 29.9 percent, was only getting batters to swing and miss 12.3 percent of the time.
Bailey was placed on the DL again with a shoulder injury and it was announced that he would also miss the rest of the season. Farrell and new pitching coach Juan Nieves would have little choice but to piece together the last few innings with pitchers that were not proven closers. Junichi Tazawa, who signed with the Red Sox as a free agent from Japan in 2008 was given the first crack at the closer role and performed well at first. Andrew Miller was another choice but he suffered an injury and would miss the rest of the season, joining Hanrahan and Bailey.
With Tazawa struggling Farrell made the decision that Koji Uehara, who had more experience in the ninth would get the ball despite the team's worry about his durability and their stance that they didn't want to overuse him.
Since that decision was made, it has been lights out at the end of games that the Red Sox have led. With a sneaky fastball and a devastating splitter, Uehara has earned 18 saves for the team. That stat doesn't nearly tell the story however. He doesn't blow hitters away with heat. He has a hesitating in his delivery that makes it difficult to see the ball out of his hands. The radar gun rarely exceeds 90 MPH on that pitch. He gets swings and misses at a staggering rate with that pitch and even more so the split-fingered fastball that dives out of the strike zone after dangling over that zone for enough time for the hitter's eyes to light up.
His efficiency simply jumps off the page as well. He was named the closer in late June. He has pitched 33 1/3 innings since then and has a 0.27 ERA. He has struck out 45 batters and only walked two. That ratio is astounding with the offense that major league teams put up these days. Looking further into his dominance, Uehara has saved those 18 games in 21 opportunities and has not allowed a run in his last 26 appearances which is a team record. Daniel Bard, who was just picked up by the Chicago Cubs off of waivers, had a streak of 22 straght scoreless appearances.
With his one-two-three inning to earn his 18th save last night in an extra innings victory over the New York Yankees, Uehara has now sat down 24 straight batters. One more of those performances and he will have essentially pitched a perfect game. He is averaging just over four pitches per out, where most pitchers don't average close to that per batter. Uehara is averaging just 13 pitches per inning. Again, that efficiency just jumps off the page.
Entering Friday's game against the Yankees, the Red Sox own a 6.5 game lead in the AL East over the struggling Tampa Bay Rays with 20 games remaining on the schedule. It is a stark contrast to the last place finish that the team suffered through last season. At the beginning of the season, it is likely that not one baseball expert picked the Red Sox to finish ahead of Tampa and New York. Many of them picked the Red Sox to finish behind Baltimore and Toronto as well.
The chemistry of the team is electric. With scraggly beards, clutch hits and walk-off celebrations Uehara has added his own quirkiness to the mix as well. He shows his emotions on the field. He skips excitedly off the mound after a strike out and grins ear-to-ear after a successful outing. His high fives at the end of games are ferocious and contagious.
There is a long way to go in the 2013 for the Red Sox. They have not locked up anything and with games to come against the teams that are chasing them who have amazing pitching and strong lineups one through nine, they must continue to play at this pace to get to October. If they do, they have the Keith Foulke of 2004 and Papelbon of 2007 to shut the door at the end of the game. His name is Uehara...Koji Uehara.