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Koji Uehara’s closing career comes full circle in Detroit

10.18.13 at 8:03 am ET
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DETROIT — The date was June 21. One day earlier, Andrew Bailey had blown the Red Sox‘ 10th save of the season, permitting a two-run walkoff homer to Jhonny Peralta that sent the Sox to a 4-3 loss. It was Bailey’s third blown save in the span of 11 days. It was time.

The Red Sox had to redistribute their ninth-inning duties. Speculation about Bailey’s successor in the role centered on Andrew Miller and Junichi Tazawa (the latter of whom briefly had been named the Sox’ closer in late-April). Instead, manager John Farrell entrusted the role to Koji Uehara, the team’s most consistent reliever to that point — he had a 2.10 ERA with 12.6 strikeouts and 2.1 walks per nine innings — but suspicions that, at 38 and with a history of elbow and leg issues, he might be injury-prone if overused had led the Sox to turn to three others before settling on Uehara.

At the time, the appointment seemed almost tenuous. The Sox maintained hope that Bailey’s struggles might be short-lived. Even Uehara injected humor into the conversation about the likely duration of his time as the final line of defense in victories.

“I’m assuming two or three days,” he joked from the Comerica Park clubhouse on June 21.

Fast-forward by 119 days, 48 appearances, 52 1/3 innings, three runs (0.52 ERA), 70 strikeouts (12.0 per nine innings), two walks (0.3 per nine innings) and 24 saves (in 26 opportunities).

Could Uehara have ever envisioned a scenario in which he would have been back in Comerica Park having just recorded the five-out save that would bring the Red Sox within one victory of the World Series?

“I wasn’t able to think that far ahead,” Uehara said through translator C.J. Matsumoto. “Even though I was named the closer at that time, I didn’t pitch [in that June series against the Tigers] so I wasn’t able to think that way.”

How Uehara or the Sox viewed him back in late-June is now irrelevant. What matters is what he’s become.

Uehara has become the stabilizing anchor of the Sox’ late-innings relay, the finishing presence who permits everyone in front of him to handle their stretch of the relay with a defined sense of their supporting roles. He has been a staple of nearly every Red Sox win on a march that has brought them to the brink of an American League pennant, and he is doing so in a fashion that is both ruthlessly efficient as well as consistent.

On Thursday, after entering with one out in the eighth and no margin for error in a one-run game, Uehara retired all five batters he faced (requiring an atypically taxing 27 pitches) to secure the Sox’ 4-3 win. It was his longest save thus far of the postseason, though it was the third time already that he’s recorded a save of more than three outs. To this point in the playoffs, he’s pitched in seven games, logging eight innings while allowing one run (1.13 ERA), collecting four saves and one win (the Sox’ Game 2 walkoff in the ALCS), suffering one loss (the Sox’ Game 3 walkoff loss in the ALDS), punching out 11 and walking none.

He has been the sort of late-innings force that characterized the Sox in their title runs, when they had Keith Foulke (2004) and Jonathan Papelbon (2007) offering a sense of certainty around the final outs of the game.

“It’s the difference between winning and losing,” catcher David Ross said of the impact of having Uehara to lock down five outs. “When you’ve got your starter who had to grind early, and then we use our main guys out of the bullpen, it’s just nice to know you’ve got an ace in the hole back there who’s been doing a good job for you all year long. We’ve got a ton of confidence in him, and he’s got a ton of confidence. I’ve caught a lot of good closers in my career, and he ranks up there.”

It all remains improbable, of course. Uehara is 38. (“Old. Old,” he chuckles in English, when the subject of his age is brought up.) He is, by his own account, “exhausted . . . too tired to even look back.”

Yet he continues to be precisely what the Red Sox need, this improbable and almost accidental closer whose emergence has reshaped the Sox’ season and now their run through the playoffs.

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