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Surprise! Koji Uehara’s postseason achieves historic pinnacles

10.29.13 at 3:37 am ET
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ST. LOUIS — No one saw this coming. Not even Koji Uehara.

The right-hander continued his dazzling postseason run on Monday night, recording the final four outs (without permitting a baserunner) of the Red Sox‘ 3-1 victory over the Cardinals in Game 5 of the World Series. The effort was familiar in its singularly overpowering and efficient nature: strikeout, strikeout, groundout, flyout, good night — 15 pitches, 11 strikes, victory. When entrusted with leads, Uehara has been automatic this postseason.

Indeed, he has now reached historic pinnacles at the end of games. His save on Monday marked his seventh of the postseason, tying him for the most ever by a closer in one playoff run. (The mark was previously reached by John Wetteland (1996), Troy Percival (2002), Rob Nen (2002) and Brad Lidge (2008).)

Uehara expressed surprise about reaching that milestone, pausing to reflect on the accomplishment before trying to explain his thoughts about it.

“I didn’€™t take that into any consideration when I was on the mound,” Uehara said through translator C.J. Matsumoto. “I was expecting a lot of close games, so part of it was expected.”

Yet to merely take stock of the fact that Uehara has recorded a number of saves does a disservice to his work. After all, he’s now recorded four saves of four or more outs, becoming just the fourth pitcher in playoff history to do so — following Goose Gossage (6 in 1981), Mariano Rivera (5 in 1998, 2000 and 2003; 4 in 1999, 2001 and 2001) and Jonathan Papelbon (4 in 2007). That is the sort of company in which Uehara’s October excellence belongs.

“He’s almost been our Mariano Rivera,” said Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves, boldly drawing parallels between this year’s Sox closer and the man who most dramatically embodies dominance in that role. “Mariano Rivera for the Yankees, now Koji is our Mariano Rivera for Boston. Very effective. Reliable. Recovery time, resilience, unbelievable, too.”

Much like Rivera, Uehara’s ability to assume a considerable October workload reflects a relentlessness in attacking the strike zone. Uehara now has 15 punchouts and no walks this postseason, putting him in position to surpass Rivera’s record for the most strikeouts (14) by a reliever without issuing a walk in the postseason.

The impact is difficult to exaggerate. Just as was the case in 2004, when the Red Sox had Keith Foulke as an incredibly impactful late-innings contributor who logged 14 innings while allowing one run, so, too, do they now feature a closer who has become a staple of every win. Uehara is up to 12 2/3 innings — more than the 10 2/3 frames submitted by Jonathan Papelbon in the 2007 postseason — while permitting just one run.

And he is doing so in a fashion that makes it look, at times, routine. There have been exceptions — the homer by Jose Lobaton of the Rays in a walkoff loss, the double by Allen Craig en route to the Sox’ defeat in Game 3 of the World Series — but those hiccups (in tie games) notwithstanding, he’s been something beyond good. In a charged and sometimes exhausting atmosphere, the Red Sox closer has afforded his team a sense of security.

“Every time he walks to the mound, it’s one of the most calm innings that we’ll watch, regardless of the stage, regardless of the importance of the game,” said Sox manager John Farrell. “He’s been outstanding.”

How is this happening? How is it that the right-hander with an 88-90 mph fastball and the split-finger that tends to embarrass opponents has enjoyed this emergence as a 38-year-old?

“I would like to know myself. … I’m just a human being,” Uehara said. “Not only the postseason, but the regular season, the season overall ‘€” it’s been a surprise for me.”

The Sox, undoubtedly, would welcome one final record-setting chapter in this surprising story.

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