Koji Uehara has baffled hitters in the postseason where he has a 1.13 ERA in seven appearances. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)
Boston — There was that grand slam by David Ortiz in Game 2 at Fenway Park. And that monstrous shot off the bat of Mike Napoli early in Game 5 at Comerica Park.
But the biggest hit thus far in the American League Championship Series has been nearly invisible. It’s Red Sox closer Koji Uehara and his “invisiball” — a split-finger fastball that has helped make him nearly unhittable, at times, this season.
And in a series that already had tied an ALCS record with four one-run games prior to Saturday night’s Game 6 at Fenway Park, his presence — anchoring a bullpen that has allowed just one earned run in 17 innings — has played a critical role in the Red Sox success.
“Obviously his significance right now is probably as important as anybody they’ve got on their team,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said Saturday afternoon.
The 38-year-old Uehara made the switch from starter to reliever in 2010 after an injury cut short his first major-league season in Baltimore. He was traded to Texas the following year in the deal that sent 2013 home run champion Chris Davis and setup man Tommy Hunter to the Orioles.
Uehara actually was Boston’s third or fourth choice for the closer’s job this season. Much the way the Tigers turned to Joaquin Benoit to save their bullpen from a complete implosion, the Red Sox turned to Uehara, a former Japanese All-Star they’d signed to a one-year, $4.25 million deal last winter.
“With the way things transpired, it became necessity,” manager John Farrell said. “But we knew he was going to be a key contributor toward the back end of the bullpen. His track record indicates that. And I keep going back to the fact that this is he’s not doing something this year that is so out of the norm for him. He’s been a very successful pitcher, whether it’s been in Japan or here. But the fact he’s the closer here, he’s gained the notoriety that he deserves.”
Since taking over as the Red Sox in late June, he boasts a 0.52 ERA with 70 strikeouts and only two walks allowed in 52 1⁄3 innings, including the postseason. In one stretch, he actually retired 37 consecutive batters he faced.
Not bad for a guy who a couple years ago was serving up home runs to Miguel Cabrera and Ryan Raburn in consecutive ALCS appearances against Detroit with the Texas Rangers.
Even better for a guy who barely registers on the radar gun, at least by today’s major-league standards.
Uehara’s four-seam fastball clocks an average velocity just under 90 mph, and his split-finger is barely above 80 mph. But with his deceptive delivery and his brilliant pitch sequencing, he’s a blur to batters, nonetheless.
He has allowed just three hits in five innings against the Tigers in this series, getting the win in Game 2 and then picking up four- and five-out saves in Games 3 and 5. Farrell said Saturday afternoon Uehara’s available for more than an inning again tonight if necessary.
“It’s been unbelievable,” Leyland said. “He’s been absolutely fantastic. You know, I was reading a lot of the articles today about when they signed him, they probably in their own mind didn’t anticipate this was going to happen. But sometimes it does. And they caught lightning in a bottle. He’s been absolutely terrific, there’s no question about that.”