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August 31. 2013 11:35PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Uehara has been unbelieveably good


Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Koji Uehara (19) and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia (right) celebrate a victory over the Chicago White Sox at Fenway Park on Friday. (Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports)

BOSTON -- When the Red Sox acquired Joel Hanrahan from the Pirates on the day after last Christmas, the trade had been official for all of 135 minutes before the club's marketing wing sent a news blast out to fans trumpeting his arrival.

A few days later the team had him in for a tour of Fenway Park, a press conference, and a visit to the Jimmy Fund as well as a few other sites around the city. They even let him take over their Twitter account for a few hours as he familiarized himself with his new surroundings.

By comparison, when they signed Koji Uehara to a free-agent contract about a week earlier, there was no press conference. There was nary a conference call. There was only a standard news release, calling the agreement a one-year deal without bothering to note that it would automatically turn into a two-year commitment if the reliever made a certain number of appearances. The treatment from media relations honestly reflected the team's own mild expectations for the veteran right-hander.

Little did they (or anyone) realize then, though, that Uehara wouldn't merely be a more important acquisition than Hanrahan - he would ultimately be more important and impressive than any player the Red Sox brought in during their winter remodel of 2012-13.

The story of his season should be familiar to Sox fans, given that the team wouldn't likely have entered Saturday with a 3 1/2-game lead atop the American League East if it hadn't been for his impact at the back of the bullpen. Most of them remember how shaky things were while Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey were trading the closer's role before each saw injury end his season, and how much smoother things have been since Uehara assumed the role.

But, even still, some might not realize just how ridiculously good Uehara has been until they take a look at the numbers he's put up, particularly since taking over the ninth inning in late June.

He was really good to that point - good enough to warrant consideration for the All-Star team, in fact - but starting June 26, and continuing through Friday, he'd made 28 appearances covering 30 1/3 innings, and over that span he'd allowed just one earned run and only a dozen baserunners. That's an 0.30 earned run average, and an average of 0.40 walks and hits per inning pitched.
 
"He's been as good as any reliever in the league," Sox starter Ryan Dempster said after Uehara saved his victory Friday, after which the closer had faced 74 batters over his previous 20 appearances - and retired 67 of them.
 
Opponents had an on-base percentage of .095 as well as an on-base plus slugging of .204 against him during that period, and what might be most remarkable is the efficiency with which he's registered all those outs.

To complete 23 innings over those 20 appearances, he needed to throw a grand total of just 271 pitches, which equates to 3.66 per batter, and 3.93 per out. Furthermore, not once during that stretch did he let two runners reach in the same outing, and so he hadn't faced more than four hitters in any of his August appearances - despite going more than one inning three times. And he hadn't thrown more than 20 pitches in any game since June 18.

That's key, given that the Sox entered the season concerned about overloading the 38-year-old, though the closer role has been something of a blessing in that sense, because it minimizes the number of times the reliever wastefully warms without coming into the game. And Uehara has taken care of the rest himself by relentlessly pounding the strike zone.

Almost 73 percent of his pitches this season have been strikes, which goes a long way toward explaining the 9.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (82 to nine) he took into Saturday. That's actually down from last year's 14.3, which was third-best ever, but to put it in historical context consider that Mariano Rivera's career K:BB ratio is 4.1, and that's fifth-best all-time among qualifying pitchers.

Uehara is not Rivera, of course. Nobody is or ever has been. But at this point, for this season, you wouldn't be wrong if you'd rather have the Red Sox option if it came time to close out a game.

And that's something, considering that back in December - hundreds of high-fives ago - it didn't look as though Uehara would even be an option to fill that role for his own team.

- - - - -
First and foremost, the focus should be on Tampa Bay as the Red Sox peer into their rearview mirror. The AL East race is far from over as September arrives, particularly given the Rays' propensity for getting hot.

But Boston will need to be keeping an eye on Detroit and Texas, too, and under baseball's second-year playoff structure it's almost as important that the Sox finish ahead of the Tigers and Rangers as it is that they outrank the Rays.

Beyond just making the playoffs for the first time since 2009, the Sox' top priority is obviously winning the division. However, there's also a big benefit to finishing with the AL's best record because that team gets to face the winner of the one-game wild card playoff in the division series, and the pitching matchups in that best-of-five figure to significantly favor the team allowed to get more rest.

Entering Saturday, the race for the AL's best record was basically as tight as it could be. All three division leaders had 56 losses, with the Red Sox having 80 wins, the Tigers at 79, and the Rangers at 78. With Texas the league's hottest team over the past month, that makes this upcoming week's three-game series between Boston and Detroit a big one.

- - - - -
Stat of the week: In beating the White Sox, 4-3, on Friday, the Red Sox made it 10 consecutive games in which their pitchers have not allowed more than three runs or eight hits. By doing that, Boston became the first team to do so since the vaunted Braves staff did it in 1993.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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