When the ninth inning rolled around last night in Yankee Stadium and the Red Sox were clinging to a 4-2 lead over the Yankees, everyone expected to see Koji Uehara trot out of the bullpen, as usual, for the save after a clean eighth inning by Junichi Tazawa.
But it didn’t happen.
Manager John Farrell reported after the game that Uehara experienced some minor discomfort in his right shoulder tossing before the game and that the team preferred to stay away from him in the obvious save situation.
The alarming part of all this is that the discomfort is in the same spot that troubled Uehara in 2012 while with Texas, causing him to miss 66 games.
No one knows right now if this is a long term injury. Farrell and staff are treating this situation as day-to-day. For his part, Uehara says he didn’t think it would be a long term issue.
The comfort zone Uehara has provided to both teammates, staff and fans since his ascension to the closer role mid-season last year is off the charts. Everyone was starting to get to the point where the ninth inning in a save situation was becoming near automatic for the Sox. Now this happens and no one knows for sure how long this “discomfort” will last.
Enter Edward Mujica.
The former Cardinals closer entered the game in the ninth and promptly saved the game for the Sox vs the Yanks with a quick and easy inning.
Mujica was brought to Boston as a free agent over the winter by General Manager Ben Cherington for this exact reason- to provide experienced closer insurance against an injury to Koji.
It may turn out to be the most important move of the off season if Uehara misses an extended period of time.
His Fenway opening day implosion against Milwaukee aside, Mujica is an experienced closer who saved 37 games for the Cards last season before fatigue set in down the stretch. He lost the job late in the season to Trevor Rosenthal and appeared sparingly in the playoffs and not at all in the World Series.
But make no mistake, Mujica was selected for last year’s All-Star game and had a 2.78 ERA as the Cards closer, so he can pitch. He is still adjusting to the American League, but right now he becomes the main focus of a bullpen that will be under added scrutiny to perform if Uehara ends up missing significant time.
Time may prove differently, but for now Sox fans should be thankful that their GM had the foresight to take out an insurance policy against their 39-year old closer with a history of injuries.
Mujica was an afterthought to many Sox fans when he signed. They looked at him as another live arm for the pen but didn’t know much about him because he didn’t have the big name or reputation.
But you’d better get to know him now because he might just become one of the five most important players on this 2014 edition of the Red Sox if Koji misses extended time.