Uehara out to prove 2013 season was no fluke

Uehara out to prove 2013 season was no fluke
February 25, 2014, 12:00 am
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Koji Uehara has been downright dominant of late, not allowing a single run in his last 29 1/3 innings.

(AP Photo)

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Koji Uehara's performance last season was so unexpected, so unprecedented, so dominant that surely, John Farrell was asked Monday, it wouldn't be fair of the Red Sox to ask him to repeat it this season.

"Totally fair," insisted John Farrell with a straight face before breaking into a chuckle.

In truth, the Red Sox would be ecstatic if Uehara could provide a reasonable approximation of his 2013 season, the one in which Uehara saved 20-of-22 save opportunities from the last week of June until the end of the season, while compiling a ridiculous .565 WHIP and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 101-to-9.

Maybe even that's not realistic. But the Sox maintain that Uehara's excellence was not an outlier.

"Granted, his performance last year was outstanding," he said. "The line that he put up, the time of the year, the game, the importance . . . I keep going back to the years previous. This has been a very successful pitcher every year he's been here in the States."

For his part, Uehara is taking nothing for granted, including his job title.

"I have to earn (the role of closer)," he said.

In Uehara's mind, last year, special as it was -- retiring 37 batters in a row, holding opposing hitters to a .130 batting average against -- is ancient history.

None of it will help him retire a single batter this season. Uehara must start again and do it over again.

"I don't care about what people think," Uehara said of the acclaim that came his way. "Every year is a challenge. I try to make that motivation to be better."

It's worth debating whether Uehara could be better than he was a year ago. His devastating split-finger pitch was seemingly unhittable for much of the year and he threw with incredible efficiency, seldom wasting a pitch.

He was on the mound when the Sox clinched the Division Series, the ALCS and the World Series, each round puncuated by Uehara's ninth-inning brilliance.

(As if to remind people he's not perfect after all, he allowed a game-winning walk-off homer to Jose Lobaton of Tampa Bay in Game 3 of the Division Series).

This season, the Sox will have to be mindful of his workload. Uehara will turn 39 in the first week of the this season and the 88 innings he pitched (74 1/3 innings during the regular season and another 13 2/3 innings in the post-season for a total of 88, a career high for him in MLB) probably can't be repeated.

Farrell has vowed to limit Uehara to the ninth inning -- at least in the regular season -- and has the added luxury of using Edward Mujica, himself a successful closer with St. Louis last year as another ninth-inning option.

A deep set-up staff, featuring Mujica, Andrew Miller, Craig Breslow and countryman Junichi Tazawa can nail down some other late-inning high-leverage outs, reducing the stress for Uehara.

Uehara didn't spend much time basking in his own glory last winter, even if others did.

"It's all in the past,'' said Uehara. "It's not productive, so I didn't really reflect on it.'

Uehara enjoyed some celebrity status in his native Japan during the off-season, posing with the World Series trophy and meeting U.S. ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy and the prime minister.

But in typical humble fashion, Uehara downplayed his newfound star power.

"Nothing's changed,'' he insisted.

On the mound, the Sox can only hope that's true.