BOSTON -- It was only a matter of time until the crack in Red Sox reliever Koji Uehara’s armor would begin to show.
Otherworldly for the majority of the past two seasons, Uehara has been nearly automatic every time he’s been sent to the mound. So when manager John Farrell found his team in a 1-1 tie entering the ninth inning of Tuesday night’s game against the Chicago Cubs, there was no hesitation in using his closer to keep his team in position to walk off with a victory in the bottom of the frame.
Instead, Uehara faltered. Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo hit a first-pitch single to center, soon making his way to third as Starlin Castro followed with a full-count double to left. By the time Uehara settled down, the winning run had crossed the plate on a Luis Valbuena sacrifice fly and the Red Sox once again were on the losing end of a close contest, this time 2-1.
However, the team may have a bigger problem on its hands regarding the 39-year-old closer.
“I wasn’t crisp,” Uehara said through an interpreter. “I think it’s a little bit of fatigue.”
Fatigue? Surely the seemingly unhuman Uehara wouldn’t succumb to such a mortal dilemma. Alas, making his 38th appearance of the season, perhaps Uehara is reaching the point where perfection isn’t to be expected each time he takes the mound.
“You can’t go out and not give up a run every time out, it’s impossible,” starter Clay Buchholz said. “Things happen, the game is hard. Regardless of if you throw 120 mph, somebody is going to get a hit off of you and score a run.”
For his part, Buchholz looked strong in his second consecutive start since returning from the disabled list. He held the Cubs to one run on five hits in 6 1/3 innings, retiring 13 straight from the end of the first to the beginning of the sixth, and getting 10 of the 24 batters he faced to ground out. More importantly, he again walked nobody, a step forward from where he was before he went to the DL.
“His stuff in Seattle [Buchholz's last start] was better than it’s ever been before he went on the DL and tonight it was even better,” catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. “Hopefully we’ll continue to build off of this in five days and pitch even better.”
After hitting Welington Castillo with one out and one on in the seventh, Buchholz was lifted in favor of left-hander Andrew Miller, who struck out two right-handers to end the threat. Junichi Tazawa followed Miller with a scoreless eighth, striking out two of his own, before Farrell turned the ball over to Uehara in the ninth.
“When he’s given up some base hits, it’s been on the first or second pitch where he’s trying to get a strike and it’s not the true put-away split -- that was the case with Rizzo tonight,” Farrell said. “It’s been more in the early counts where we’ve seen some of the damage take place.”
Uehara admitted the same, noting that perhaps there are some adjustments he needs to make. Having allowed runs in three of his last seven outings, Uehara said it’s important for him to do the basic things right in order to maintain his energy. That and, of course, get younger, as he joked with reporters.
Still, Uehara’s teammates haven’t lost faith in him after taking his second loss of the season on Tuesday.
“He had a couple of pretty good pitches,” Pierzynski said. “He’s been pretty darn good all year so for him to give up a run -- those things happen.”