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The Koji Effect: Uehara’s presence felt by Red Sox bullpen even on night he doesn’t pitch

06.18.14 at 9:38 am ET
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On one level, Tuesday night represented just another day at the office for the Red Sox bullpen.

After starter Jon Lester left the game following 6 1/3 innings, the relievers recorded the final eight outs in impressive fashion to preserve a one-run win.

Burke Badenhop stepped in and got Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki to ground out. Craig Breslow took on Eduardo Escobar and Sam Fuld, walking Escobar but then getting Fuld to fly out to Brock Holt to end the seventh inning. In the eighth, Red Sox manager John Farrell handed the ball off to Junichi Tazawa, who subsequently struck out the side.

With Koji Uehara taking the night off after pitching three straight days, it was Edward Mujica who faced the challenge of finishing off the game in the ninth inning. Mujica stepped up and shut down the Twins, striking out two hitters and getting Oswaldo Arcia to fly out to end the game, closing out the 2-1 victory in Koji-esque fashion.

To recap: Red Sox relievers pitched 2 2/3 innings, struck out five, walked one and allowed no hits. Despite the absence of Uehara, Tuesday’s flawless performance in a way was nothing out of the ordinary for the Red Sox bullpen.

As a group, the Red Sox relievers rank second in the American League and fourth in the big leagues with a 2.77 ERA. The group leads the majors in WAR at 3.8, with the second closest being the Yankees bullpen at 2.9. The Red Sox are fourth in baseball in walks per nine innings at 3.01 and fourth in fielding independent pitching (FIP) at 3.18. The group is tied for sixth in the majors in left-on-base percentage at 78.3 percent.

On a night when Uehara did not make his jog out of the bullpen to “Sandstorm” by Darude, the closer’s impact remained palpable for those who did contribute.

“A high tide raises all ships, and we’re led by a pretty good captain in the back of our bullpen and we go from there,” Badenhop said. “[Uehara] sets the tone, and we know that when one guy gets the job done, it carries over to the next guy. Just like hitting, it’s contagious. With us, it’s just pitching.”

With Uehara unavailable, the Red Sox turned to Mujica, whom the team envisioned as the second closer when it signed the 30-year-old to a two-year, $9.5 million contract in the offseason. Even though Mujica has struggled through the first 2 1/2 months of the season to the tune of a 6.04 ERA with a 1.42 WHIP and five home runs in 25 1/3 innings over 26 appearances, the righty was ready to step in and prove his value to the bullpen Tuesday night.

“[Mujica] feels more comfortable in that ninth inning,” Farrell said. “There is added adrenaline, better stuff. Overall the entire bullpen, there have been a couple of hiccups along the way, but I think for the most part, guys have come in and thrown strikes and we’ve been able to match up as best we can. They’ve been very good through the first 70-plus games this season.”

Mujica has shown the ability to pitch in multiple situations, taking the mound out of rain delays, during the middle innings and in the ninth inning as a backup closer. Farrell said that Mujica’s value draws from his ability to help in so many roles.

Mujica said that he knew that he was the next man up with Uehara taking the night off and wanted to prove that he could be relied upon when called on to close out a game.

“When Koji has the day off on a day like today, they’re going to give me a chance and I’m glad to be here,” Mujica said. “I want to keep working, and everything is going turn around.”

Badenhop says that the “next man up” mentality plays a critical role in the bullpen’s success. Having the stability of Tazawa and Uehara has had a domino effect on the rest of the bullpen. The relievers always seem to have a sense as to when they could be called upon to pitch on a given night.

“We benefit from the fact that Taz and Koji are our eighth- and ninth-inning guys,” Badenhop said. “I’ve played on other teams where we had seventh-, eighth- and ninth-inning guys. To be honest, it isn’t the greatest. If you’re not winning, that takes three of your guys out of the picture. With us, we’ve been pretty flexible in the sense that between the other five guys, we’ll pitch at any time, at any point in the game.”

Badenhop says that the closer’s day-to-day consistency rubs off on the rest of the bullpen and ultimately plays a huge role in the success of the group.

“He pumps strikes and he gives us some solace back there at the end that we get the ball to him and that we’re going to be sitting pretty there in the ninth,” Badenhop said. “He’s a professional guy and goes about his way as good as anyone in this game.”

Catcher David Ross has seen the progression and development of the bullpen throughout the season. Ross has not only been impressed by the individual performances but the group’s consistency and closeness.

“We’re all going to have struggles and the season is going to go up and down, but those guys have been really consistent out there,” Ross said. “When one guy has a bad night it seems the other guys pick him up. They’re a tight-knit group out there.”

Read More: Burke Badenhop, Edward Mujica, Koji Uehara,
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