Do we have a Koji problem?
Red Sox closer Koji Uehara was tremendous in 2013 and an All-Star in 2014, but the warning signs haven’t been hard to spot over the last few months.
First there was the implosion late last season that cost him the closer’s role, though no one really cared, since the Red Sox were hopelessly out of contention.
Then there was the hamstring injury that robbed him of most of spring training, though he hadn’t pitched well to that point in Fort Myers anyway. Coupled with his 40th birthday in April, it was enough to make Red Sox fans at the very least wonder how viable Uehara would be come the start of the season.
And now? Now it’s time to wonder if the Red Sox will be redirecting some of their resources to the closing market in the next couple of months.
Throwing 85 mph fastballs and hanging his formerly devastating splitter, Uehara blew a 4-3 lead in the 10th on Saturday night and allowed David Lough’s walkoff solo homer in a brutal 5-4 loss.
The Red Sox had no business even being in the game after getting shut down by left-hander Wei-Yin Chen for eight innings, but they rallied to tie in the ninth on some atrocious fielding by the normally sure-handed O’s, and then took the lead in the 10th on Xander Bogaerts’ leadoff solo homer.
But Baltimore came right back off of Uehara, who wasn’t helped at all by right fielder Allen Craig, whose diving attempt at Adam Jones‘ leadoff bloop instead sailed over his outstretched glove and rolled into right for a leadoff triple.
But even if Craig had wisely pulled up and held Jones to a single, Uehara didn’t have the stuff to close out the O’s without help. Because his fastball velocity is down 4 mph from last year, he has relied almost excluslively on his splitter, which isn’t nearly the weapon it should be if there’s no fastball behind it.
Chris Davis lofted the game-tying sacrifice fly to left before Lough won it by launching a hanging splitter to right on a full count. He had flailed at two better splits earlier in the count, but Uehara has no margin for error, and when he missed the 76 mph offering up in the zone, the light-hitting Lough pounced.
And so now the Red Sox have lost three of four, with Uehara’s night overshadowing a big hit by Bogaerts, a strong start from Justin Masterson, and an opportunistic rally.
SWENSON GRANITE WORKS ROCK SOLID PERFORMER OF THE GAME: Lough entered the game with nine lifetime homers and a .347 OPS this season, but he made his second hit of the year count, taking Uehara deep to make a winner of the O’s.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
‘ After crushing six home runs in spring training, Mike Napoli started the season without a sniff of a long ball. That finally changed in the second when he ripped a two-run shot off the right field foul pole to tie the game at 2-2.
‘ Masterson started slowly, allowing two runs in the first, but settled down from there to give the Red Sox more than enough to win. He went seven innings, allowing three runs, earning his second quality start of the season.
‘ Right-hander Matt Barnes, summoned in the morning from Pawtucket to replace the injured Shane Victorino on the roster, escaped a jam of his own making in the eighth, stranding runners at second and third with one out. He was then in line for the win after a 1-2-3 ninth.
WHAT WENT WRONG
‘ Koji. The closer had nothing.
‘ Where’s the offense? Besides Napoli (3 for 4), the Red Sox did zilch with the bats. Two of their eight hits were infield gifts in the ninth.
‘ Mookie Betts’ struggles continued. The leadoff man went 0 for 4 with a pair of strikeouts as his average fell to .203.
‘ David Ortiz went 0 for 5 and struck out with the tying run on in the ninth, dropping his average to .194.
‘ Craig didn’t necessarily make a poor decision when he dove for Jones’ leadoff blooper in the 10th, but he executed it horrifically, letting the ball sail over his glove and roll into no-man’s land for a leadoff triple.