There are a lot of factors to evaluate when looking at the incredible turnaround the Red Sox have had this season. John Farrell has provided competence and consistency to the field manager role that the team lacked under Bobby Valentine, they have improved the mentality within the clubhouse by bringing in high character veterans like Jonny Gomes, Ryan Dempster, Mike Napoli, and Eagle Scout Shane Victorino, and the starting pitching has been solid and healthy with the exception of Clay Bucholz, but the biggest factor this season has been the free agent acquisition that nobody was talking about over the winter.
Saying that Red Sox closer Koji Uehara has been awesome this season would be an understatement. Since the beginning of the season, it seems that the 38 year old Japanese right-hander only knew how to throw strikes. He works fast and high-fives all his teammates when he comes off the field. Since being named Boston’s closer in late June, he has been nothing short of dominant. Ever since the departure of Jonathan Papelbon (and even then Paps was stressful to watch the last couple years in town), the Red Sox closer position has been a lot like the Defense Against the Dark Arts professorship at Hogwarts: a revolving door of incompetence. This week, Koji completed an unofficial perfect game, retiring 27 straight batters, as well as continuing a streak of 27 scoreless innings. If the success has gotten to his head, you’d never know it. Koji is still the efficient, high-fiving, strike throwing machine he’s been all season.
There have been questions about Uehara’s durability, and he has pitched a Major League career high in innings this season, but he has shown no signs of decline so far. Limiting his innings was a reason the Red Sox did not give him the closing job earlier, but their hand was forced with poor performance and season ending injuries to Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey. Koji met the challenge and proved he is just as effective in the 9th inning as he was in the 8th. Advanced baseball stat geeks everywhere who don’t believe in clutch performance or the difference between hits in April and hits in October are rejoicing over Koji’s ice cold consistency late in the game.
It’s September now, and the Red Sox are poised to win the American League East for the first time since 2007. Many of the newcomers have made great contributions to the teams on field success and off field attitude, but Koji’s contribution to the back of the bullpen has had the biggest impact. There is still a lot of baseball to be played, and hopefully the Sox can make a deep run in October. A lot of comparisons have been made between this team and the 2003 Red Sox who set records on offense, but had less than stellar pitching outside of Pedro Martinez. Grady Little is a name that lives in infamy among Boston sports fans, much like Bucky Dent or David Tyree, for leaving Pedro in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS for too long, but with a guy like Uehara warming up in the pen, John Farrell shouldn’t have to make the same mistake this year.