- Jackie MacMullan, ESPN Senior Writer
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DETROIT -- He makes it look breezy, effortless, flinging his slender frame toward home plate with the exuberance of a kid playing sandlot baseball.
But Red Sox reliever Koji Uehara isn't some teenager. He's 38 years old, the third choice of manager John Farrell to be the closer, pressed into that role only when Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey were lost to season-ending injuries.
You could understand why Uehara wasn't Farrell's initial preference. He struggled as a playoff reliever for the Texas Rangers in 2011 and 2012 because of injuries, unable to demonstrate his enthusiastic fist pumps or leaping bear hugs because he couldn't get key outs. No one in the majors had ever used Uehara as a closer.
But here we are with Game 5 of the ALCS in the books, a pressure-packed 4-3 Boston victory clinched with a five-out save from the Japanese wonder the Sox players have coined "Ninja," leaving the Red Sox one game shy of a trip to the World Series.
Under normal circumstances, a 3-2 series lead heading home to the friendly confines of your own cozy, quirky ball park would present a significant advantage. But the Detroit Tigers will come to Fenway with their two most electric starters, 21-game winner Max Scherzer and Cy Young alum Justin Verlander, lined up for duty.
The Red Sox strategy has been clear: wear down those blue-chip Tigers starters so they can exploit Detroit's relievers.
The Tigers have to do their damage in the early innings, knowing full well that by the time they get to Uehara and his battery mates, there will be slim pickings.
"[Uehara] continues to be so efficient,'' Farrell said. "And in the games here with the Tigers, it's been with his back against the wall."
For 13 1/3 straight innings, the Red Sox bullpen had not relinquished a single run. That changed Thursday night, when the normally reliable Junichi Tazawa pitched himself into a nasty jam in the seventh.
Jose Iglesias lined a single to center field, Torii Hunter matched that with a single to right, and, suddenly, the Tigers had runners at first and third with no outs. The score at the time was 4-2 Red Sox.
Next up was Miguel Cabrera, normally the most feared hitter in baseball when he's healthy. Yet even a hobbled Cabrera has proven to have pop at key moments in this series. In Game 3, Farrell summoned Tazawa in the eight to pitch to Cabrera and he struck him out with a fastball.
"I got the strikeout last time,'' Tazawa said, "but I knew it would probably be difficult to make that happen again.''
Tazawa, normally a fly-ball pitcher, threw that fastball outside again, and this time coaxed Cabrera into a double play ground ball. One run scored, but Boston escaped further damage. It was a huge out, and enabled the baton to be passed from Tazawa to Craig Breslow to Uehara, who was rested after a night off in Boston's 7-3 loss in Game 4.
Breslow retired Victor Martinez to start the eighth, then the manager signaled for his stud closer to manage the final five outs.
There were four occasions during the regular season when Uehara was asked to retire five or more batters. One of those times, on Sept. 20 against Toronto, he recorded the save.
"Maybe it's the same five outs numbers wise,'' Urehara said through his interpreter, "but it was completely different because of the playoffs.''
Turns out the breezy pitcher with the loosey-goosey delivery has been dealing with some jittery nerves. These playoffs, he said, have been mentally taxing.
Farrell called for him to pitch to Jhonny Peralta, who is hitting .333, and, according to Uehara, "has been the most dangerous hitter in these series.''
Uehara mixed his usual potion of splitters and fastballs in attacking Peralta, but something very uncharacteristic happened during that at-bat: The closer fell behind 3-1 in the count.
During the regular season, this occurred only 11 times. Eleven times. Consider that. In his Game 1 start of the ALCS, Anibal Sanchez fell behind 3-1 to Red Sox hitters six times in one game.
"It was not how I planned it to go,'' said Uehara, who explained he was being "cautious" with Peralta.
Uehara worked the count to 3-2 before Peralta fouled off three pitches in a row. On the ninth pitch, the Ninja finally got Peralta swinging on his devastating splitter, the one that dives hard and away like a pelican dive bombing for fish in the ocean.
Asked if that pressure-packed at-bat took its toll, the closer replied, "I was exhausted. I'm too tired to even look back.''
He closed out the eighth by whiffing Omar Infante with a splitter, a fastball, then his splitter again.
In the ninth, he knocked them down in order, preserving a key win and cementing his growing reputation as a big-game closer.
"Having a guy like that is the difference between winning and losing," catcher David Ross said. "When you've got your starter [Jon Lester] who had to grind early in the game and then you use your main guys in the bullpen, it's kind of nice to know you have your ace in the hole back there for you.
"We have a ton of confidence in him.''
Farrell indicated before the playoffs began that Uehara may be asked to pitch more than just his standard one inning. Tazawa, his good friend and countryman, said his mentor is more than up to that challenge, but, he added, "I do not wish to put that burden on him. I will do better next time.''
Uehara doesn't consider a five-batter outing a cumbersome workload. He was, after, all, a starter for the Yomiuri Giants in Japan, where he won the league's equivalent of the Cy Young Award.
"There was a fan before the game who was yelling at Lester,'' Ross said. "He was shouting, 'Start Koji!' I was thinking, 'Well, we'd have a pretty good shot if we did.' ''
He has not reflected much about this unlikely, satisfying journey to these playoffs. He was named the closer at Comerica Park in Detroit back in June, but that was a lifetime ago. He posted regular-season numbers that were otherworldly: a 1.09 ERA, 21 saves in 24 chances, nine earned runs, nine walks and 101 K's.
At one point, he retired 37 batters in a row.
"I've caught a lot of closers,'' Ross said, "and he's right up there with the best.''
Uehara became the first Red Sox pitcher to record a five-out save in the postseason with at least 1 2/3 innings pitched since Jonathan Papelbon did the honors in Game 4 of the World Series on Oct. 28, 2007.
The home run Uehara gave up to Jose Lobaton in Game 3 of the ALDS is merely a blip on the screen, a forgotten mishap that has proven to be an aberration, not a trend.
When Iglesias' pop-up nestled into Dustin Pedroia's glove for the final out of Thursday's game, Uehara unleashed one of his delighted screams, then looked to the heavens and double pumped his fist.
He looked a little like Kevin Garnett after he'd won his first NBA championship, and bellowed, "Anything is possible!
The Red Sox are one game from the World Series with a 38-year-old emergency closer who is putting up numbers that are both improbable and historic.
Anything is possible, indeed.
1dJesse Rogers and Jerry Crasnick