Commentary

Koji Uehara timing it perfectly

Red Sox closer's streak of sheer dominance just keeps getting better

Updated: September 12, 2013, 6:46 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Sure, Jarrod Saltalamacchia is impressed with Koji Uehara. Who isn't?

The Sox closer has retired the last 34 batters he faced -- the equivalent of a perfect game plus seven batters -- and has not allowed a run in his last 29 1/3 innings, including the 1-2-3 ninth he threw Wednesday night, when he improved to 4-0 after Mike Carp's 10th-inning grand slam helped the Sox beat the Rays, 7-3. That's the longest single-season scoreless streak for a Sox reliever since the Monster, Dick Radatz, had a 33-inning streak from May 13 to June 14, 1963.

The Japanese word for monster, incidentally, is "kaibutsu," a nickname that Daisuke Matsuzaka was given in Japan but was something he didn't quite live up to in his tenure with the Sox. Certainly, Uehara has a more legitimate claim to it here, based on his body of work.

[+] EnlargeKoji Uehara
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesKoji Uehara enjoyed another perfect outing against the Rays, improving to 4-0 this season.

But Saltalamacchia and fellow catcher David Ross want more, and have let Uehara know.

"As far as I'm concerned, he owes me and Rossie a Rolex," Saltalamacchia said Tuesday night. "Complete-game no-hitter, now he's working on another no-hitter. At some point, he's got to get us something."

Had Saltalamacchia conveyed that demand to Uehara?

"It's been two weeks now we've been on him," Saltalamacchia said. "Rossie has been on him. So, we told him tomorrow we had to have something."

Well, tomorrow arrived, so we took a pass by Saltalamacchia before Wednesday's game. Anything?

"No," he said. "Rossie yelled at him."

And what does the pitcher think of his catchers' extortion attempt?

"I want something," he said with a laugh. "Not them. I want something."

Shot back Saltalamacchia: "We already gave him something -- a $5 million contract."

All in fun, you understand. Saltalamacchia was referring to the $4.25 million vesting option Uehara triggered for 2014 by appearing in at least 55 games this season. He also has earned an additional $2 million in performance bonuses this season, on top of his $4.25 million base salary.

But you can't put a price tag on what Uehara has already given the Red Sox, especially after the loss of closers Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey to season-ending injuries.

The numbers tumble over each other like in a bingo cage, one more spectacular than the previous one drawn:

-- 26 consecutive scoreless appearances, breaking the club record set by Daniel Bard in 2011.

-- 17 perfect saves out of 19, including each of his last eight opportunities, the longest such streak in Sox history.

-- 34 consecutive batters retired, breaking Ellis Kinder's club record of 32 set in 1952.

-- 93 strikeouts to 9 walks

-- an opponents' batting average of .128

-- a strike percentage this season of 74 percent, the highest this century for anyone who has thrown 900 or more pitches in a season since 2000, which is when pitches began to be counted in earnest as part of the historical record. Uehara has thrown 953 pitches, 702 for strikes.

"I've been watching, I promise," said Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz, whose 10th win of the season Tuesday night, after a 94-day absence, came courtesy of Uehara's 19th save. "The guy is unbelievable. Unbelievable is the only word I can use to describe it. He's the best there is right now. It's fun to watch."

Wednesday, Uehara threw 17 pitches, 13 for strikes. He came in Tuesday and recorded four outs, striking out the last two batters he faced. He threw 13 pitches, 12 for strikes. In his previous outing, against the Yankees, last Friday, he threw a dozen pitches, 11 for strikes. In his last 10 appearances, dating to Aug. 17, he has thrown 129 pitches, 107 for strikes. That's an 83 percent rate.

"I think everyone is jumping all over Koji right now because of his success," Jonny Gomes said Tuesday night, "but this is the third year he's been doing it. Granted, it hasn't been the ninth inning, but he's been one of the top relievers the past three years.

[+] EnlargeKoji Uehara
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesKoji Uehara was his typical dominant and demonstrative self in Wednesday's win.

"But this stretch right now is pretty unbelievable. He comes in tonight and throws one ball. Not many people are used to that, by any means."

Uehara, who went 20-4 as a rookie starter for the Yomiuri Giants, was hardly an unknown quantity in Japan. But he had already been converted to a reliever, then a spot starter, before he was signed by the Baltimore Orioles before the 2009 season, so there was some thought that perhaps his best years were behind him.

But that was before anyone saw how major league hitters reacted to his fastball-split combination, one that he manipulates, teammate Craig Breslow said, as if he knows in advance which pitch the hitter is expecting.

"There's such late action on his splitter," said one scout who was here Tuesday night. "When he struck out [Evan] Longoria, that pitch dipped right at the plate."

It is his durability, at age 38, that has probably been the most surprising component of his time here. Wednesday's win was his 66th appearance of the season. His 66 2/3 innings pitched entering Thursday are his most since 2009, his first season in the majors, when the Orioles gave him a dozen starts in which he threw 66 2/3 innings.

"The one thing you like is the swing-and-miss capability, and that's not just this year," Sox manager John Farrell said last week in New York. "He's done it in the American League, he's done it in hitters' ballparks, he did it in Japan, as well as close.

"We felt as a late-inning guy that he would put fewer balls in play, and through attrition he's emerged as our closer. He's pitched as well in other years as he is right now. What he's doing right now isn't the first time he's done this. But the fact he's the closer, he'll probably get more notoriety in the role."

And now October beckons, and an even bigger stage for the uninhibited way he bounds into the dugout, high-fiving all in his path. And yet he takes it all in stride. His pitching, that doesn't change, he says. But does that carry over off the field, like his choice of meals? Is there a Boggsian devotion to eating the same thing, over and over?

"I eat," he said, "whatever is in the clubhouse."

Wednesday night, a visitor told Uehara about Radatz, The Monster. So what did he think? Kaibutsu?

"No," Uehara said with a smile. "I'm just a normal guy."

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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