By Terry Cushman – @cushmanMLB
After suffering through a tumultous 2012, one of the worst Red Sox season of our lifetime, Alfredo Aceves failed epically as the ninth inning closer. He was the epitome of a choke artist, and simply couldn’t hold down the inning to capture the save as Jonathan Papelbon did so dominantly for seven straight seasons.
After firing Bobby Valentine, Ben Cherington made the bullpen a major priority that off season. His primary solution was to acquire All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan from the Pittsburgh Pirates (which also brought Brock Holt to Boston). Hanrahan racked up 36 saves, appeared in 64 games, and posted an earnest 2.72 ERA during the 2012 season with the Pirates. It certainly was a welcomed trade. Returning from injury the previous season was Andrew Bailey to man the eighth inning. Andrew Miller seemed primed for some stellar middle relief. And finally, just because you can truly never have enough pitching, Cherington took a flier on an injury prone Koji Uehara, who had pitched very well for the Baltimore Orioles the season before, but only appeared 37 games.
To start the 2013 season, the Red Sox came out of the gates exceeding the odds by becoming the number one offense in major league baseball. John Lackey had returned from Tommy John surgery. Clay Buchholz was having a career best start. And Jon Lester was bouncing back from the worst season of his career.
The bullpen, which had the potential to be great, never really got off the ground, and was trending towards crisis mode. As April neared its close, Joel Hanrahan was lost for the season due to issues with his flexor tendon and UCL. After vising Dr. Andrews, he decided to undergo Tommy John surgery. Shortly thereafter Andrew Bailey was also lost for the season due to shoulder issues. Andrew Miller was continuing his rapid surge to prominence as a reliever, but injured his foot which subsequently ended his season as well. The sky was certainly falling.
John Farrell desperately began rotating the remnants of his tattered bullpen around to find a viable solution for the closer role. Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, and Koji Uehara all had multiple looks at the ninth inning over the course of the next few weeks. Eventually Farrell settled on Uehara, which kicked off a previously unforeseen run that truly became historic.
We as Red Sox observers had grown used to flame throwing late inning relievers such as Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard, who threw upper 90’s. Bard’s was even throwing 104mph at one point. So when Uehara took over the role, he seemed like a freak of nature. His four seem fastball averaged only 89MPH, and his splitter averaged only 81MPH. Opposing batters were often bewildered as one after another, team after team, all virtually couldn’t score a damn run off of Uehara.
Nobody was prepared to witness the dominance that unfolded. In 14 apperances for the month of July, Uehara never gave up an earned run and posted a 0.00 ERA. If that wasn’t good enough, in 10 apperances during the month of August he also posted a 0.00 ERA with no earned runs given up. His September campaign included 13 apperances, and Uehara finally gave up an earned run. But only one. His ERA that month was 0.64.
Legendary Yankees closer Mariano Rivera spent 20 seasons in major league baseball solidifying his legacy as the great closer that ever lived. However, the absolute best season of his career doesn’t come close to the numbers Uehara posted.
For the entire 2013 season in 72 appearances, Uehara posted an overall 1.06 ERA, 0.57 WHIP, and a staggering 12.33 K/9 rate. His opponents were held to a batting average of .130. Red Sox fans will probably never witness another season so dominant for the rest of our lives.
The Red Sox were gearing up for their first post season in four years. They continued to have the most robust offense in the league, with two battle hardy pitchers in Lester & Lackey to ride the backs of. They had a veteran laden team who all understood their roles. Once they had done their jobs heading into the ninth inning, Uehara was primed to defend their lead at all costs.
Aside from a surprising blip in game three of the ALDS against the Tampa Bay Rays which resulted in a blown save, Uehara continued to be lights out during the month of October. 24 hours following his blown save, he was on the pitchers mound again. One by one Uehara shut down all three Rays betters to end the Series. The ALCS showdown against the pre-season World Series favorite Detroit Tigers was set.
Coming into the series against Detroit, it was not looking as though the bullpen would be the most critical factor where many of these ALCS games were won or lost. Detroit was trotting out former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander. The pending Cy Young winner, Max Scherzer. And the 2013 ERA leader Annibal Sanchez, who successfully managed to outduel Jon Lester for a 1-0 Tigers victory in game one. The Tigers also had a powerhouse offense led by Miguel Cabrera, who was on the verge of his second straight MVP award.
As fate would have it, despite how the series projected out stats wise, Uehara would find himself in the most critical situations of all four Boston’s victories. Game two was perhaps overshadowed (and appropriately so) by David Ortiz epic grandslam to tie the game up at 5-5. Uehara was actually credited for the win following Saltalamacchia’s walk off base hit in a 6-5 win. He walked the tight rope in the ninth inning of game three to record a save in a 1-0 Boston win due in part to a solo bomb in the seventh inning from Mike Napoli off of Justin Verlander. Lester turned the tables on Sanchez in game five by avenging his narrow game one loss to hand his own one run lead to Uehara, who again was able to record a save. Finally in game six, Victorino gave the Red Sox the biggest cushion they had all series with a grand slam in the seventh inning to give Boston a 5-2 lead. Uehara once again did his job, and was ultimately awarded the 2013 ALCS MVP, never having given up a single run the entire series.
The World Series set up a rematch from 2004 against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Red Sox lit up Adam Wainwright in game one for an 8-1 win behind Jon Lester. Boston went on to lose games two and three, one of which came as a result of a bizarre interference call. Will Middlebrooks appeared to intentionally trip Allen Craig in order to prevent him from running home to score the walk off run. Uehara found himself in his own bizarre situation while attempting to save game four. With two outs in the ninth inning, Carlos Beltran at the plate. Rookie Kolton Wong was the first base runner, and seemed to have too big of a lead off the bag. Uehara threw to Napoli, and Wong could not beat the throw. It was first time in World Series history where the final out recorded of the game was the result of a pick off.
Eventually the Red Sox had a 3-2 series lead. Unlike the previous other two World Series victories, the Red Sox were home at Fenway Park in a clinching game for the ninth inning. It was not a save situation, but nonetheless Uehara was on the mound to try and finish off the Cardinals. Catching him was David Ross, who was on his career sixth different team. Uehara was with the 2011 World Series runner up Texas Rangers, but was not added to their post season roster. Yet here they were. Two of the most unlikely people, from two totally different walks of life, to ever find themselves attempting to deliver the final three outs for a World Series title.
Two outs later, Matt Carpenter stepped into the batters box, and proceeded to grind away at the first six pitches. With a 2-2 count, and only one strike away, the 36 year old David Ross from Bainbridge Georgia, signaled for a splitter from Neyagawa Japan’s Koji Uehara. As the 38 year old Uehara threw the called splitter down and away, Matt Carpenter whiffed for the third strike. It was the first clincher at Fenway in 95 years. Surely there were very very few people if any, who were still alive to witness it locally after all those years.
2013 was a season defined by a bunch of aging veterans. Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, David Ross, Jonny Gomes, and Jake Peavy were not members of the Red Sox just one season prior. It was like they showed up together on a mission. And though their time here in Boston was very brief, they managed to brilliantly accomplish that mission.
None of them however, stood out more than Koji Uehara. Never forget him.
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