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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Is winning the World Series a life-altering experience?
"No changes," Red Sox closer Koji Uehara insisted Monday.
In Japanese, you would say fuhen (unchanged), which, incidentally, was the title of Uehara's book, although no one brought up whether he would have even become a published author had the Red Sox not won the World Series.
|Red Sox manager John Farrell says it's refreshing that Koji Uehara said he still has to earn his job, although he has no intention of switching his closer.|
He conceded that yes, his family had thrown him a victory party. "Nothing too dramatic," he said. But that was about it for celebrations, he said.
No mention of his meeting last month with U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, when he and fellow Sox pitcher Junichi Tazawa brought the World Series trophy home and presented Sox jerseys to both Kennedy and the P.M.
The live feeds on Japanese network TV appearances the morning after the Series, when Uehara showed up at Fenway Park around 6 a.m., his handlers having had no more than 30 minutes of sleep? The steady round of appearances, upon returning to Japan after three weeks at his home in Baltimore, on TV variety shows and sports shows, the newspaper front pages and magazine covers, even the comic book? Nah, no mention. No reference to the Twitter account on which he has more than 180,000 followers, or the blog for which he writes almost daily.
"No changes," he said.
Maybe Koji is just modest.
The 38-year-old Uehara did acknowledge, when asked, that one endorsement opportunity had come his way, from Suntory premium malt beer. The beverage will be coming to the States, he said.
"Please try it," he said, mindful of speaking to an audience that wouldn't have to be asked twice.
But ask him to reflect on what was a historic season by a relief pitcher, and he turtles again.
"It's all in the past," he said. "I'm still pitching."
Relive the thrill of striking out Matt Carpenter for the final out of Game 6, and leaping into the arms of catcher David Ross?
"I was just trying to get the final out," he said. "That's the only thing I was thinking of. Nothing more, nothing less. Of course, when we finally won it, there was an explosion of joy."
Maybe it's his way of saying that in the midst of all the fanfare over Yu Darvish last year and Masahiro Tanaka this spring, we are guilty of overlooking another Japanese savant in our midst who may have had a season for the ages in 2013, but has been pretty much the same pitcher ever since he arrived on our side of The Pond in 2009.
He has a point. Over the course of Uehara's first four seasons pitching in the big leagues (2009-2012), only four pitchers had a WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) of less than 1, a strikeout rate of greater than 8 per nine innings and a walk rate of less than 2. They were Mariano Rivera, Sergio Romo, Huston Street and Uehara.
Here is his line from 2009 to '12, and in 2013:
So yes, he went from very good to spectacular last season, but he's hinted that he'd appreciate some recognition that he wasn't too shabby before he became a high-fivin' sensation for the Red Sox. That was even a theme during the season in 2013, when he shook his head when asked what had changed for him.
"No changes," he said.
And he's even more emphatic that nothing has changed in his approach to his role with the team. Same preparation, same routines, same absence of entitlement to a closer's job that is obviously his.
"I have to earn it," he said.
What more could he possibly do, short of channeling the ghost of Eck or the Monster, Dick Radatz?
"I don't care about what people think," Uehara said. "Every year is a challenge. I try to make that motivation to be better."
The Sox have contingency plans in place should Uehara break down -- they imported Edward Mujica from St. Louis, they're giving 300-save man Francisco Cordero a non-roster look, Junichi Tazawa has another season under his belt. But make no mistake, the ninth inning remains Koji time.
"As we've come to know, he's a stand-up guy and there are no excuses," manager John Farrell said. "It was even refreshing to hear his comments that I don't want to be given anything, I have to go out and earn my job again."
Uehara appeared for his Monday afternoon media session wearing a red T-shirt that read "High Five, Thank you Koji Uehara Fans" but said he seldom gets asked to offer his trademark gesture, either on the streets of Tokyo or the streets of Boston.
"Only here, by team staff members," he said.
Let's see how long that lasts when the team returns home in April.
Some things may change, Koji.