McAdam: Even Eckersley marvels at Uehara's year

McAdam: Even Eckersley marvels at Uehara's year
September 11, 2013, 12:15 pm
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- In almost casual fashion , Koji Uehara came out of the Red Sox bullpen and got the final out of the eighth inning Tuesday night, followed by three more in the ninth.
He did it all on just 13 pitches -- 12 of them strikes -- with the precision of a watch-maker and the steadiness of a surgeon.
Then again, Uehara has been doing pretty much the same thing since late June, when, out of desperation, the Red Sox turned to him and annointed him closer, their fourth of the season.
Ever since, Uehara has been a run that has invited comparisons to some of the best seasons by a closer in modern baseball.
* He has eight straight "perfect" saves -- that is saves in which he did not allow a single baserunner, retiring every hitter he faces.
* He has retired the last 31 batters, extending his own record for a Red Sox reliever and tying countryman Hideo Nomo for the franchise record.
* He hasn't allowed a run over the last 28 1/3 innings, constituting the longest such streak in the big leagues this season. That streak has covered the last 25 games, tying him with Daniel Bard for the longest consecutive outing streak in team history.
* He's had 58 scoreless appearances -- in 65 games pitched -- the most in baseball this season.
But to properly put Uehara's season in context, it helps to look at history. After Tuesday's four-up, four-down appearance, Uehara's WHIP (walk and hits allowed per inning) dropped to an astonishing 0.579.
To put that number into perspective, Mariano Rivera, widely regarded as the best closer in history, has had only one season in which his WHIP dropped below 0.800. In 2008, Rivera compiled a 0.665 WHIP.
Even Eric Gagne's magical 2003 season, during which he won the N.L. Cy Young Award and finished sixth in N.L. MVP voting, featured a WHIP of .692.
To find a famed closer with numbers comparable to that of Uehara this season, it's necessary to go back to the late 1980s and early 1990s when Dennis Eckersley was the game's dominant late-inning reliever.
In 1989, Eckersley, then with the Oakland A's, posted a 0.607 WHIP. Appearing in 51 games, pitching 57 2/3 innings, Eckersley allowed just 32 hits and a mere three walks (to go with 55 strikeouts).
A year later, pitching in 63 games, Eckersley tossed 73 1/3 innings, giving up just 41 hits and four walks in addition to 73 strikeouts and a microscopic 0.614 WHIP.
Now, from his position in the broadcast booth, Eckersley watches Uehara and the run he's on and marvels.
"To me," said Eckersley recently, "it's the consistency of his split-finger (fastball) -- lot of swings and misses. He paints with his fastball, but the swing-and-miss (pitch) is the split. And the efficiency is through the roof -- ridiculous."
Eckersley watched in awe now, recalling how difficult it was to be that dominant in the toughest innings, and watching Uehara replicate it -- albeit for a shorter duration -- with an almost casual ease.


"Sitting here, it's like, 'God . . .,' " said Eckerlsey. "It didn't feel like that when you're doing it. When you look it, it looks a lot easier. Even for me, I think, it's easier now that I'm done with it. But when you're in the middle of it, it's intense."
Eckersley, who had transitioned from starter to reliever late in his career, was in his mid-30s in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Uehara, meanwhile, is 38. And while Eckersley's fastball had dipped some -- from a mid-to-high 90s fastball as a young starter to a 92 mph fastball with Oakland -- Uehara often failed to hit 90 mph.
"I think I had some deception, though, and he does, too," said the Hall of Famer. "But it's a totally different delivery. I had the big wing span. (With Uehara), a hitter told me you don't see (the ball) until it's on you, at the last second. It doesn't look funky. Most (Japanese) pitchers have a sort of a pause; he doesn't have that. It's (expletive) magic, isn't it?"
Uehara had success in Japan as a closer, and in every year he's pitched in MLB as a reliever, has posted a sub-1.000 WHIP. But when the Sox turned to Uehara to close in June, no one saw this coming.
"I thought he'd be successful," said Eckersley, "but not like this. This is ridiculous."
In fact, when the Sox turned from Andrew Bailey and were faced with the prospect of Junichi Tazawa -- who stumbled in a brief audition earlier -- or Uehara, Eckersley found himself thinking Tazawa was the more logical choice.
"Automatically, I thought, '(Tazawa) has the gas!' " laughed Eckersley. "You know what I mean? There's something about velocity that makes you think it's going to happen. As it turns out, I was wrong. Uehara was the better pick."
Eckersley, who was demonstrative on the mound, can't help but appreciate Uehara's exuberance. In his younger, cockier days as a starter Eckersley was prone to pointing "You're next," to the on-deck hitter when he got two strikes on the hitter at the plate and wasn't above a showy, celebratory pumping of his right arm after a strikeout as a closer.
"It was such a release for me," said Eckersley. "The pressure was like, 'Phew!' I would point on a called strike. I wouldn't point on a swing-and-miss. I was like (to the umpire) 'Call it!' "
Uehara never purposely shows up a hitter, but his enthusiastic high-fives of teammates in the dugout have become the stuff of legend.
"He's fun to watch," said Eckersley. "Everybody's excited to begin with and then they get to celebrate with him. I think it's great."
Of course, the enthusiasm Uehara shows belies the calmness with which he pitches.
"He looks excited," Eckersley said, "but he's not excited because he's been around the block. It's controlled excitement. To be able to paint like that? His fastball's always on the corner."
And, into mid-September, Uehara doesn't seem to be losing steam, though he's already pitched more innings out of the bullpen than he ever has in the big leagues and his next appearance will set a personal season-high with 66.
"It doesn't seem like it's been a factor," said Eckersley of Uehara's age and workload. "We haven't worn him out (pitching him almost exclusively in save situations); he doesn't wear himself out. There are no 25-pitch innings."
Indeed, Uehara has been incredibly efficient. In addition to the 13-pitch, four-out save Tuesday, Uehara has thrown 96 pitches to get his his last 30 outs, an average of a tick over three pitches per out.
Then there's Uehara's otherwordly strikeout-to-walk ratio, which stands at better than 10-1 (91-to-9).
"That's sick. How do you do that?" asked Eckersley, who did it himself, in wonder.