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Red Sox

Is Koji Uehara The Most Overlooked Man In Sports?

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
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Koji Uehara (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Koji Uehara (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

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BOSTON (CBS) — In the summer of 2003, Eric Gagne regularly led SportsCenter as the No. 1 sports story of the night. He won the Cy Young Award that year while setting the record for most consecutive saves. It was the most dominant performance the baseball world had seen since Dennis Eckersley’s MVP work in the very early ’90s.

Presently, Koji Uehara is in the midst of one of the greatest stretches of pitching by a closer in MLB history, yet it seems as though the sporting world is hardly noticing.

Obviously, anyone who follows the Red Sox on a nightly basis knows what Uehara is doing, and of course, when the Sox won the World Series last October, people certainly noticed.

But Uehara has done what many considered impossible — he’s picked up just where he left off last season.

With his 14-pitch save on Tuesday night, Uehara converted his 13th save in 13 chances this year. He’s converted 33 saves since becoming the team’s closer late last June, and in the past two years combined, he’s blown just three saves in 50 opportunities (he collected 13 holds before assuming the closer’s role).

He allowed just one hit while preserving Tuesday night’s 1-0 lead, yet his WHIP skyrocketed from 0.750 to 0.759. Nothing paints a better picture of just how dominant Uehara has been than that fact.

On the season, Uehara has allowed just 17 hits (two doubles, two homers, 13 singles) in 27 2/3 innings pitched. He has struck out 38 batters while walking just four. In the past two years, he’s compiled a 0.618 WHIP and 0.97 ERA.

He became a bona fide superstar last year, when the Red Sox were rolling along in first place and Uehara was retiring 37 straight batters. In the postseason, he posted a .512 WHIP and 0.66 ERA while striking out 16 batters and walking zero. That’s an infinity strikeout-to-walk ratio. Infinity is pretty good.

The baseball world learned of Uehara’s excellence as he rose to fame in 2013, and then just as quickly, they all seemed to forget about him in 2014.

That is in part due to the Red Sox’ 29-36 record and their proximity to last place as the summer approaches. Obviously, teams that don’t win very often don’t have much use for a closer, and it’s much less exciting to see Uehara retire the side in order to salvage a Sunday win after the team lost four straight instead of watching him close out games in the World Series. That’s only natural.

But still, Gagne’s Dodgers in 2003 were an 85-win team, finishing 15.5 games out of first place in the NL West and six games out of the NL’s wild-card spot. That didn’t stop the nation from tuning in closely whenever Gagne stepped on the mound. Perhaps it was because Gagne used the traditional method of closing (blow ‘em away with the gas, combined with a devastating change-up) while Uehara uses more deception with an unreal splitter and an 88 mph fastball. Perhaps it was simply that streak that had people geared up for closers. Perhaps there has been a culture shift, where an incredible throw by Yoenis Cespedes is sure to generate 100 times as many YouTube views as a split-fingered fastball diving to the dirt to make even the best hitters look foolish. For that matter, where SportsCenter used to run sports highlights, fans are now watching LeBron James and Dwyane Wade sitting at a table, saying nothing for 12 minutes, and it gets the ratings. And perhaps it’s because Uehara doesn’t speak English, so the only way to gauge his character is to watch him dole out high fives and get picked up by David Ortiz. There are some reasons, but the discrepancy in national attention is nevertheless a bit uneven.

And really, the case could be made that what Uehara is doing right now is more impressive than what Gagne did from 2002-04.

Uehara, 2013-14: 5-2 record, 0.97 ERA, 0.618 WHIP, 139 SO, 13 BB, 10.69 K-to-BB ratio
Gagne, 2002-04: 13-7 record, 1.79 ERA, 0.822 WHIP, 365 SO, 58 BB, 6.29 K-to-BB ratio

Nevertheless, Uehara has gone from the top of the baseball mountain to relative baseball obscurity.

Sadly, due to the woeful state of the Red Sox, the most attention he’ll likely be getting over the next month will come from rival GMs, as they look to poach him from what should be a selling Sox squad, thereby putting an unceremonious end to one of the great stretches of pitching in the history of the game.

Koji Uehara (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Koji Uehara (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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