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Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Updated: October 3, 4:35 PM ET
Koji Uehara's unusual journey

By Gordon Edes
ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- The fate of the Red Sox in October may rest in the hands of a pitcher who:

• was an outfielder in high school;

• spent a year working as a security guard on a construction site because he did not pass his entrance exam into university;

• had a career goal of becoming a high school phys. ed. teacher;

• began pitching in college after his coach told his players to choose the position they liked;

• credits reading Nolan Ryan's "Pitching Bible" for helping him to become what he is today;

• never imagined he'd be playing baseball for a living;

• wears No. 19 to remind himself of where he was at age 19, and how far he has come;

And the Sox couldn't be happier.

Koji Uehara
Koji Uehara's end-of-game excellence is matched by his enthusiastic high-fives.

Baseball has always had its share of improbable back stories. The game just finished celebrating one of its better ones, the son of a fishing boat captain who tried his hand at fishing and failed, played shortstop on an amateur team in Panama, and discovered by accident, during a game of catch early in his pro career, the pitch that would make him the greatest closer in history. School kids in the Bronx can recite the tale of Mariano Rivera.

But outside of Japan, who knew that on the scale of fantastical tales, Koji Uehara's saga sounds like something that Miyazaki, the master of anime, might have invented?

The best high school baseball players in Japan are venerated, usually because of their heroic exploits in the national tournament, Koshien, whose grip on the Japanese imagination is exponentially stronger than March Madness here. Daisuke Matsuzaka was a household name as a teenager because of Koshien, and was assured of being coveted by professional teams in his country.

Koji Uehara? "I never participated in Koshien," he said through translator C.J. Matsumoto.

The best pitcher at Osaka's Tokai University Gyosei High School was not Uehara. It was Yoshinori Tateyama, who is now in the Yankees' organization after cameo appearances with a couple of other big league teams. Uehara was an outfielder.

Japan has a rigorous exam system for incoming university students. Uehara did not pass his exam. He spent the next year studying in advance of retaking the test. "It was a very difficult year," he said, "because I had to study all the time."

To make ends meet, he said through Matsumoto, he took the job as a security guard. Baseball? "I wasn't even playing at that point," he said. "My dream was to teach."

But he did read Ryan's "bible," and from it picked up some weight-training techniques that paid off in added strength when he entered Osaka University of Health and Sports Sciences, and returned to playing.

"My college was not really a baseball school," Uehara said, "so the manager told us just choose whatever position you want to play. The last year in high school, I pitched five innings and I thought it was fun. I thought pitching would be fun."

He was pleasantly surprised that his increased bulk had resulted in an uptick in his velocity. By his junior year in college, he said, scouts began to take notice -- not only in Japan, but in the United States. The Angels approached him about signing.

"The scout told me I had to be absolutely sure that I was going to succeed," he said. "At that point, there weren't a lot of Japanese players."

"Or staff to help like me," Matsumoto added.

"I knew," Uehara continued, "that communication would be a very important thing, and I had some doubts that I would be able to communicate."

So he signed with the Japanese team that drafted him, the powerhouse Yomiuri Giants, and in his rookie year in 1999 he was a 20-game winner and named recipient of the Sawamura Award as Japan's best pro pitcher, the equivalent of the Cy Young Award.

Was it a case of fulfilling projections or exceeding expectations?

"Probably more than they expected," said Uehara, who laughed and added, "Just like this year."

The split-fingered fastball that has become his signature pitch here?

"It was something I threw that had movement," he said, "but I didn't know where it was going. Starting from about '02, I started to get a better feel for it."

That was the year when he won his second Sawamura Award, and part of a run in which he was named an All-Star in seven consecutive seasons and eight times in his 10 seasons in Japan.

Red Sox scout Jon Deeble, the Australian who works the Pacific Rim for the Sox, said Uehara was watched with interest.

"Yes, he was on the radar," Deeble wrote in an e-mail, "but he was injured quite a bit the last few years in Japan, mainly groin and leg injuries. He was moved [by his Yomiuri team] from a starter to the bullpen, but he has come back really strong and done an amazing job."

The outlines of the rest of the story, if you've been paying attention at all, should be pretty familiar, though not without a couple of wrinkles.

In 2009, he signed with the Orioles, but only after making it clear that he would come to Baltimore as a starter, not a reliever. After a decade of success in Japan, he said, the decision came much easier than when he was first starting out.

"It wasn't hard at all," he said. "I wanted to go for the challenge MLB provided."

Uehara had middling success as a starter with the Orioles, but twice went on the disabled list -- the first time with a strained hamstring; the second time with a strained elbow that sidelined him for the last three months of the season. In 2010, Buck Showalter moved him to the bullpen and eventually to closer, where he had 13 saves in 15 chances for a 96-loss team, which doesn't result in much attention.

He was a setup man again in 2011, with results very much like he had with the Sox this season, but with the Rangers desperate for bullpen help, the Orioles sent Uehara to Texas in a trading-deadline deal that netted them slugger Chris Davis, who morphed into a home run champion.

Despite the success Uehara had in Baltimore, he was unable to duplicate it in his first go-round with Texas. He gave up home runs in three consecutive postseason appearances (the first pitcher ever to do so), gave up five hits in all in 1 1/3 innings and was left off the Rangers' World Series roster. In an odd coincidence, his old high school teammate Tateyama, who also was with the Rangers at the time, was left off the Series roster, as well.

Last season, Uehara reverted back to form with the Rangers, posting a 1.75 ERA, but made just 27 appearances, missing nearly half the season with a strained lat muscle. The Sox signed him as a free agent in a deal that attracted little attention; Boston also had acquired a new closer in Joel Hanrahan, and former closer Andrew Bailey was identified by manager John Farrell as his eighth-inning man.

But then came the season-ending injuries to Hanrahan, Bailey and power lefty Andrew Miller, and 38-year-old Uehara was Farrell's choice to close. In a summer of serendipity, nothing comes close to that decision.

"What he's doing is phenomenal," Farrell said. "He's having a historic year.

"I think power arms play in postseason. The ability to get people out within the strike zone is key. Koji's performance is power. You look at his strikeout-to-walk ratio, if you didn't know Koji, you'd think, 'Wow, this guy must have incredible stuff.' And in his own way, he does."

Uehara's fastball sits at around 90 miles an hour. At his age and with his injury history and average fastball, there was a good deal of skepticism about whether he was up to the role.

"I think that hasn't changed," Uehara said. "The skepticism is still there, because I don't throw hard. I always have the desire to reverse that kind of thinking. It's not about velocity; I want to change that concept. I'd like to reverse that old thinking that velocity is everything."

Striking out 101 batters in 74 1/3 innings -- 12.2 K's per nine innings pitched -- while walking just nine goes a long way in changing minds. Hitters have less luck hitting his splitter than a high-octane fastball.

Did we say splitter? There may be two different splitters, or even three. Alter the grip here, apply a little more or less pressure on the ball there, and you have pitches that are the same in name only.

"Away from a lefty, away from a righty, straight down," Farrell said, describing the various actions. When Uehara throws a first-pitch split to a right-handed hitter, you'll see him get his hand almost on the side of it, make it look almost like a slider.

"We see him more, so we can marvel at it," Farrell said, "but I don't know if he's better than he was in Baltimore."

Uehara will admit to maybe two splits. If there's a third, he said, it's "by accident." But if hitters want to think there are three different splitties, that's OK with him.

Just as it is OK for people to think that the pressure of pitching in Boston might affect him.

"Please understand this the right way," he said, "but for me it's not about pitching for a certain team, whether it's Yomiuri or the Red Sox. I pitch for me. If I pitch for me, I will be contributing to the team. I don't need to go beyond and over that."

Uehara shouldn't worry about being misconstrued. Not when he has endeared himself to his teammates with the most exuberant displays of high-fives in the century-plus history of the Olde Towne Team. The Sox love him for his enthusiasm; rookie Drake Britton, on the night the Sox clinched the division title, said that Uehara was the "coolest person I've ever met."

A tattooed Texan, more than a decade younger than Uehara, sees Koji as the epitome of cool? How can that be?

"Because I'm always cool," Uehara answered readily. "While I'm playing baseball, I might be crazy. But otherwise, I'm pretty cool. Like I am right now."

Anyone in Boston inclined to disagree?

Didn't think so.