- Gordon Edes, Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Well, glad we got that cleared up.
"He's not from another planet," David Ortiz said.
No, but for the better part of three months, Boston Red Sox closer Koji Uehara had pitched like he was not of this world. A Japanese-made droid, perhaps, programmed only to throw strikes, with an unhittable splitter Sox catcher David Ross calls the "invisiball," because most hitters can't believe their lying eyes when it vanishes from sight.
Which made it all the more pigs-can-fly shocking when Tampa Bay Rays catcher Jose Lobaton, a 28-year-old Venezuelan of modest power (9 home runs in 478 career big-league at-bats), made Uehara's splitter disappear over the center-field fence for a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth Monday night in Tropicana Field. The ball splashed down in the rays tank beyond the outfield wall, the first time a member of the home team hit one in the drink.
Fifteen outs away from the end of their season and down 3-0, the Rays won their fourth elimination game in the span of six contests to stay alive in the American League Division Series. They beat the Red Sox, 5-4, before a late-to-the-party sellout gathering of 33,674 in the Trop, which judging by the Rays' sparse attendance this season (1.51 million, last in the AL) shows up as a blank spot on most maps of the Tampa Bay area.
With the Red Sox still leading the series 2-1, the Rays are compelled to win two more elimination games to advance, a tall order against the Sox, a team it has not beaten in back-to-back games this season, never mind three in a row.
Still, that the Rays cracked Uehara's façade of invincibility -- this, after Rays slugger Evan Longoria hit the first three-run home run allowed by Clay Buchholz in more than a year to tie the score at 3 in the fifth -- created a seismic shift in a series that had tilted so completely in Boston's favor until then.
"As long as a hitter has a bat in his hands, it can happen," Uehara said through team translator C.J. Matsumoto.
On a rational level, we all understand that to be true. But Uehara had been so insanely good for so long, and had shown no sign of letting up in this series, it was hard to process Uehara, head bowed, walking off the mound while the Rays gathered at the plate for the best welcome-home celebration of Lobaton's young life.
Uehara last had given up a home run on June 30 in Fenway Park, a game-tying shot by Jose Bautista in the ninth inning. He had pitched 38 times since, facing 142 batters (five in the playoffs) without anyone taking him deep. He had faced the Rays 11 times this season and had not given up a run, let alone a home run.
He had thrown 11 pitches, all strikes, in saving Game 2 in Boston, the decibel level exceeding that of an airplane engine by the time he was through. On Monday night, he retired Ben Zobrist on a roller to first on one pitch. He threw three pitches to Longoria, who lined out to center. His first pitch to Lobaton was a strike, a splitter. When the ball left his hand on the next pitch, it too was a splitter, intended to be down and away.
And then, it was Roberto Alomar taking the unhittable Dennis Eckersley deep in Game 4 of the 1992 AL playoffs, Sandy Alomar Jr. taking the unhittable Mariano Rivera deep in Game 4 of the 1997 ALDS, and Aaron Boone taking Tim Wakefield deep in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, the last time the Red Sox were beaten by a walk-off homer in October. Only this time, the names were Lobaton and Uehara.
"I tell you what -- that was a good pitch," said Ortiz, who had been lifted for pinch runner Quintin Berry in the eighth, a stratagem that worked when Berry was called safe stealing second, but came up short when the Sox failed to score in the inning and Ortiz was out of the game when his turn to bat came up again with two out in the ninth and a runner on third.
"Lobaton is a good low-ball hitter. He went down and got it. "[Uehara] is a trooper. It happens. He's a pitcher. He's human. He's not from another planet. We're happy we have him, the way he's been performing for us. A situation like that is going to happen."
Red Sox setup man Craig Breslow, the thinking man's pitcher, said in one way, maybe we shouldn't be so surprised after all, and not because Uehara, in the other significant blip in his otherwise stellar performance on this side of The Pond, gave up three home runs in 1 1/3 innings in the 2011 playoffs and was left off the Texas Rangers' World Series roster.
"The thing is," Breslow said, "it almost seems like if he's going to give up a run, that's probably going to be the way it goes because you don't see teams stringing together hits against him. He's not going to beat himself. He's not going to put guys on base.
"So it's going to take a pretty good swing, inevitably on a pretty good pitch, and it left the yard. Obviously, it's surprising based on the run he has been on, but probably less so than if he had given up a walk, hit, hit."
Uehara said through Matsumoto that he will try to forget this one. "I am looking forward to coming back," he said.
"You guys have got to remember," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said, "he's a human being. Things are going to happen. He's bounced back all year, so don't expect anything different."
The Rays live on for another day. The Sox?
"I think it's important," Breslow said, "that the guys in here realize the situation that we're in. If we can come out and win tomorrow, the series is still over and that's ultimately the goal, even though we didn't take care of things tonight."
After being automatic for so long, Koji Uehara reminds us nobody's perfect.