Red Sox: Old friend Koji Uehara’s charmed baseball life

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 30: Koji Uehara
BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 30: Koji Uehara /
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Boston Red Sox fans will always associate Koji Uehara with good memories. He’s lived a charmed baseball life and is not planning on it ending so

The 19-year career that former Boston Red Sox closer Koji Uehara has enjoyed almost never happened. After playing outfield on a highschool team alongside ace pitcher

After playing outfield on a highschool team alongside ace pitcher Yoshinori Tateyama, Koji went to an Osaka university not known for its baseball team. He moved from outfielder to pitcher because of a coaching staff that encouraged players to pick their own positions. Fortunately, Koji switched from the field to the mound and never looked back.

He was drafted by the Yomiuri Giants and debuted the same year as another former Red Sox player, Daisuke Matsuzaka. Koji was drafted as a starter and in his first season with the Giants he was phenomenal. He finished the 1999 season with a 20-4 record, a 2.09 ERA, and a Central League Rookie of the Year Award.

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In his rookie season, Koji also won his first Sawamura Award. The Sawamura is the Japanese version of the Cy Young, however, it is only awarded to one pitcher a year. Impressive hardware for a 24-year-old kid who almost wasn’t a pitcher.

He was never quite able to live up to his rookie season, however, he was a very dominate pitcher when healthy. In 2002 he posted a 17-5 record along with a 2.60 ERA, good enough for his second Sawamura Award.

Since his days in Japan, Koji has always been a control pitcher. He had a fastball in the low 90’s and was able to place it anywhere with pin point accuracy. Also in his arsenal, a forkball (popular among Japanese pitchers) and another Japanese breaking ball, the shuuto.

Koji played for Japan in the inaugural World Baseball Classic and lead the eventual champions in innings pitched (17) and strikeouts (16). He absolutely shut down Korea in the WBC semi finals, shutting them out over 7 innings, and only giving up 3 hits.

Given his success in Japan, Koji was very driven to play in the states. He requested to be posted in 2004 and 2005 and the Giants denied him both times. The posting never came, but during the 2008 season, he accrued enough time to qualify for free agency. In 2009, he signed a 2-year, $10 million dollar deal with the Baltimore Orioles.

Koji was signed to be their No. 2 starter and in his first year went 2-4 with a 4.05 ERA. After the injury plagued season limited him to only 66.2 innings, he was moved to the bullpen. He has not started a game since.

Baltimore traded him to the Texas Rangers in 2011, and despite as strong start with Baltimore (1.72 ERA in 47 innings) he did not play well for the Rangers that year. He finished the regular season in Texas with a 4.00 ERA in only 18 innings. It got worse for Koji come the postseason when he gave up three home runs in 1.1 innings which kept him and his 33.75 postseason ERA off of the Rangers’ World Series roster.

After another injury plagued 2012 season that saw Koji only pitch in 37 games for the Rangers, he signed a one-year contract with the Red Sox. The expectations were low for Koji, but after injuries to Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey, and Andrew Miller, Koji quickly became a very important part of the bullpen.

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I’m not sure everyone remembers just how good Koji was in 2013. He put together one of the best seasons by a reliever I’ve ever seen. There were months where he was absolutely unhittable. He set a Red Sox franchise record by retiring 37 batters in a row, only 4 shy of tying the MLB record.  He finished the season leading all relievers in WAR (3.6), with a 1.09 ERA in 74.1 innings.

As remarkable as Koji was in the regular season, he was a whole other pitcher come October. Without Koji, the Red Sox would not have won the 2013 World Series.

He was unreal: in 13.2 postseason innings, he posted a 0.66 ERA with 16 strikeouts. He only allowed one earned run all October, a solo home run to Jose Lobaton that let the Rays walk off Game 3 of the ALDS.

He was awarded the ALCS MVP after pitching in 5 games without allowing a run or walk and held the Detroit Tigers to a .190 batting average. He recorded a win and 3 saves in those 5 games.

He was equally impressive in the World Series that year, collecting 2 saves in another 5 games. He only gave up 2 hits in 4.2 innings and held the Cardinals to a .133 batting average against him. It was magical to watch. No one expected this from a 38-year-old pitcher who could barely throw 90mph.

Koji was the definition of a “fan favorite” the next three years for the Red Sox. Every season we watched in awe as he got older and his velocity got lower and he was still able to get guys out. In 2014 he posted a 2.52 ERA with 26 saves, and was voted to his first MLB All-Star game. The following year he put up a 2.23 ERA with 25 saves. He was one of the bright spots on those two last place Red Sox teams.

Even after the Red Sox acquired Craig Kimbrel to take away his starting job, you never heard Koji complain. “Who decides where I pitch isn’t up to me,” he said. “I just do my best and leave all those kind of decisions up to the manager.”

Koji’s last year in Boston was objectively his worst. He finished with a 3.45 ERA in 47 innings. He primarily pitched in the 8th inning, and still managed to collect seven saves. But the fans loved him all the same.

It was tough to say goodbye to High Five City after Koji signed a one year deal with the Chicago Cubs last offseason.

Father Time might be catching up to the 42-year-old reliever. He was placed on the DL with a neck issue in mid-August and has only pitched in six games since. Currently, he’s dealing with a knee infection and hasn’t pitched since Sept 2nd.

When he has pitched this year, he’s demonstrated signs that he might be losing a step. He’s walked 12 batters in 43 innings this year. That’s the most since his first year in the MLB. On June 21, he walked a batter with the bases loaded for the first time in his career. That’s the last thing you want to see happen to a control pitcher.

I got to see Koji pitch on August 8, the last game before the Cubs put him on the DL. It was not a good appearance for him. He faced two batters and didn’t record and out. Koji walked the first batter he faced and gave up an RBI to Pablo Sandoval right after. But what I did see that day was a player with the same passion and drive as the 2013 version of himself that all of Boston loved.

Plus he’s still giving out those bear hugs.

Koji is one year away from his MLB career matching the time he spent playing in Japan. It sounds like he’s not ready to retire just yet. The Chicago Tribune’s K.C. Johnson recently asked Koji when he would he know it’s time to retire. Koji responded, “probably when the teams don’t offer me a contract in the offseason.”

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Sure sounds to me like Koji plans on playing as long as someone gives him the opportunity. That’s fine by me. Baseball is better when High Five City takes the mound.