Red Sox: Koji Uehara could be a difference maker down the stretch

Apr 16, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Koji Uehara (19) pitches during the eighth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 16, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Koji Uehara (19) pitches during the eighth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports /

With Koji Uehara nearing a return, the former Boston Red Sox closer could be the solution to the team’s setup role problems.

The explosive firepower in the Boston Red Sox lineup has often managed to give the team a lead, but holding the lead has been a different story. The back end of Boston’s bullpen boasts one of the elite relievers in the game in the flame-throwing Craig Kimbrel, but the bridge between the starters and their closer is burning.

The good news is that help may be on the way. Koji Uehara has been sidelined since the Red Sox placed him on the 15-day disabled list on July 20 with a right pectoral strain, but appears to be nearing a return after completing a 53-pitch bullpen session on Friday.

A timetable for Uehara’s return hasn’t been set, but manager John Farrell revealed that the former Red Sox closer is making some good strides with the volume and intensity of his bullpen session, with another session to follow.

"“He’ll throw another bullpen on Monday,” Farrell told reporters over the weeknd, per MassLive’s Christopher Smith. “And whether or not we’ll have hitters stand in, but he’s soon to be facing some hitters in a BP-type setting. So that’s not been scheduled. But I fully expect that to be sometime in this coming week.”"

With Uehara’s recovery ramping up toward facing live hitters in batting practice, a rehab assignment can’t be far behind. Barring a setback, that makes an early September return a reasonable target.

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The Red Sox bullpen could certainly use him down the stretch. The 8th inning setup role has been problematic of late, to the point where the Red Sox flirted with the idea of bringing back knucklehead Jonathan Papelbon and are now considering handing the role to the enigmatic Clay Buchholz. It’s not that either of them can be trusted, it’s that this team doesn’t have a better option.

Brad Ziegler has performed well since being acquired last month from the Arizona Diamondbacks, delivering a 1.89 ERA in 19 innings. His past success as a closer makes him a viable option for high-leverage setup situations, but Farrell has often preferred to take advantage of his ground-ball tendencies by bringing him in mid-inning with runners on. Ziegler has held opposing hitters to a .232 average with runners on base, which drops to .206 with runners in scoring position. He’s essentially unhittable with the bases loaded with a .045 batting average against, while we all remember when he struck out the side against his former team after inheriting a bases loaded situation.

If Farrell needs to turn to Ziegler earlier in the game, who does that leave for the 8th inning? Junichi Tazawa was successful in setting up Koji Uehara in years past, but he’s been brutal this year and owns a 7.50 ERA since the break. Matt Barnes was flourishing in the bullpen in the first half of the season, but has an 8.62 ERA in the second half. Don’t even get me started on the reasons that Fernando Abad can’t be trusted.

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Outside of Kimbrel and Ziegler, the only reliable arm that the Red Sox have been able to count on lately is Robbie Ross, who owns a 1.93 ERA since the break. Unfortunately, Ross is also the team’s only reliable left-handed reliever, so Farrell doesn’t always have the luxury of holding off until the 8th inning to utilize him. Ross isn’t strictly used only against lefties, but there is enough of a gap in his splits to warrant avoiding him unless he’ll get to face at least one lefty.

The 8th inning setup role has been a mess for months, but Uehara has the potential to change all that. His career-high 4.50 ERA shows he’s not the same pitcher he once was, while his typically devastating splitter has occasionally looked flat. This isn’t 2013 when the Red Sox could celebrate Koji Time in the 9th with an assured victory.

He’s still better than the options the Red Sox are currently working with. The 41-year old’s career is hanging by a thread, but he may have enough in the tank to produce one last run. We’ve watched Uehara implode more this season than we ever have in the past, but we’ve also seen stretches where he has looked like his old dominant self.

Uehara began the season with seven scoreless innings over his first seven appearances before getting shelled for four runs by the Toronto Blue Jays on April 18. He was unusually wild in that outing, allowing two walks while lasting only 1/3 of an inning. It was the only time this season he has issued multiple free passes in an appearance and only the third time it’s happened in his tenure with the Red Sox. Koji settled down to record three scoreless innings over his next three appearances to close out the month with a 3.48 ERA, suggesting that messy loss to the Jays was a mere blip on the radar.

An inconsistent month of May had us wondering if Uehara actually was starting to decline, but his season didn’t really start to unravel until the following month. During one stretch between June 3 and July 8, Uehara gave up six home runs in 11 2/3 innings. This was shocking from a pitcher that allowed only three long balls last year and never more than 10 in any season since joining the Red Sox.

Can Uehara be trusted to reclaim the setup role after enduring this homer-prone stretch? It appeared that he was starting to get back on track after that, when the Red Sox briefly moved him into the closer role while Kimbrel recovered from knee surgery. Uehara delivered 3 1/3 scoreless innings over his final four appearances and converted all four of his save opportunities in July before joining Kimbrel on the disabled list.

The silver lining to his injury is that the time off may have been good for Uehara. At his age, it was always expected to be a challenge to count on him for a full season. We know that he’s capable of being as dominant as ever in short spurts, so Uehara could give the Red Sox bullpen a reliable late-inning arm for the last few weeks of September.

Next: Is Buchholz to be protection?

As long as Farrell manages his workload cautiously (admittedly, not something we can necessarily count on), perhaps Uehara will be able to hold up through October as well. We’ve seen Uehara shine on the postseason stage before, so if he can resemble anything close to that version of himself then he gives the Red Sox a dangerous weapon to deploy late in games.