NEW YORK -- The man who owns the title of "Best Closer of All-Time" faltered. The man who now has a claim to "Best Closer on the Planet" did not.
That Mariano Rivera got stung for a blown save, his seventh of the season, in the Red Sox' stunning 9-8 victory over the Yankees merely reinforced the amazing and absurd season that Koji Uehara is putting together as Boston's closer by attrition.
Uehara -- who outlasted Lyle Overbay in a 12-pitch at-bat in the 10th inning that ended in a punchout and then punctuated the Sox' win by striking out Ichiro Suzuki -- wasn't supposed to be doing what he is doing. He was going to be part of a late-innings setup force, helping to pass the baton to Joel Hanrahan ... and then Andrew Bailey ... and then Hanrahan ... and then Junichi Tazawa ... and then Bailey. But when all three of those pitchers lost their jobs as closers -- Hanrahan and Bailey due to health, Tazawa evidently due to constitution -- the 38-year-old Uehara emerged as not only the closer but as a ninth-inning force of nature who is having a historically dominant campaign.
The ruthless efficiency of Uehara has been something for the ages. He retired all three batters he faced in the 10th inning on Thursday, in a pattern that has become a habit. It has been 19 days since Uehara allowed his last baserunner on Aug. 17. He's pitched 7 2/3 innings in that time, retiring all 23 batters he's faced while striking out 10. In three of those outings, he's needed fewer than 10 pitches.
Yet it's a run that has not occurred in isolation. In his 63 1/3 innings this year, the right-hander has allowed just 29 hits (.133 opponents' batting average) and nine walks (1.3 per nine innings) -- with his 0.600 WHIP ranking, at this moment, as the lowest in major league history for a pitcher who worked at least 50 innings, besting the standard for greatness achieved by Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley with the A's in 1989 (0.607).
He is now up to 29 1/3 consecutive innings without permitting an earned run and 26 straight scoreless innings, a run in which Uehara has struck out 38 and walked just two.
It is a stunning development, seeming like an out-of-nowhere accomplishment for the native of Neyagawa, Japan. It is not.
"The one thing you like is the swing-and-miss capability, and that's not just this year," Sox manager John Farrell noted prior to Thursday's game. "He's done it in the American League, he's done it in hitters' ballparks, he did it in Japan, as well as close. We felt like it was a late-inning guy that would put fewer balls in play, and through attrition he's emerged as our closer. He's pitched well in other years as he is right now. What he's doing right now isn't the first time he's done this. But the fact he's the closer, he'll probably get more notoriety in the role."
Indeed. Remarkably, Uehara is performing at something approximating his career norm since moving from NPB to MLB, with the primary distinction being that he's remained healthy and able to assume a significant workload out of the bullpen after navigating through on-and-off injuries through much of his previous big league career. After spending the 2009 season as a starter, he moved to the Baltimore bullpen, and in four years as a big league reliever he has a minuscule 0.72 WHIP, suggesting that he's done a better job of keeping opponents off base than anyone in the game. He's punched out 11.7 batters per nine innings, walked 1.1 per nine and been little short of dominant.
And his greatness goes back to a storied career in Japan, where he spent most of his 10 years as a starter with one campaign as a closer. He was the NPB Rookie of the Year in 1999 and a two-time winner of the Sawamura Award, the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young. He was renowned.
When Gabe Kapler prepared to play for the Yomiuri Giants in 2005, he contacted former NBP great Tuffy Rhodes. That was Kapler's first exposure to the pitcher who was the ace of his Giants team.
"[Rhodes] talked about him as Maddux-esque -- he was like the Greg Maddux of Japan. That came from Tuffy, from my interpreter or really anyone who brought him up," said Kapler.
What, Uehara was asked, did such a title mean?
"I was a pitcher who gave up a lot of home runs," Uehara, through translator C.J. Matsumoto, said with a laugh. "I gave up more home runs than I gave up walks. ... Any pitcher can throw a strike right down the middle but get hit. Hitting the corners is what's important."
In his prime in Japan, Uehara had a 90-93 mph fastball and the same insane splitter that baffles opponents here. His routine dominance as one of the top starters in Japan earned him superstar status, and yet the pitcher pined to pitch in the States.
He'd considered bypassing pro ball in Japan and signing directly out of college -- where he made the conversion from outfielder to pitcher, a move that led to spectacular immediate results when he became the top draft pick in 1999 -- and Uehara came close to signing with the Angels. But his conviction in such an undertaking -- at the time, an unprecedented maneuver for a top Japanese amateur -- faltered.
"A major league scout told me that if you don't have 100 percent confidence to succeed here, you shouldn't come -- especially at that time," said Uehara. "There weren't many Japanese players who had come over and succeeded. So, there was always some fear about language barriers and stuff like that."
Still, as he achieved immediate success in Japan, Uehara became convinced of his ability to excel in the United States if given the opportunity. The notion was reinforced in 2002 when, in a pair of exhibition starts against a traveling team of U.S. All-Stars, he had a 2.45 ERA with 13 strikeouts -- including three in one game of Barry Bonds.
"There was always my desire to pitch, even while I was pitching in the Japanese League," said Uehara. "I was always asking teams to give a chance to be posted. With the Giants, that didn't work."
Kapler became aware of Uehara's interest in crossing the Pacific when the two were teammates in 2005.
"I can remember a conversation in the food room through an interpreter," recalled the former Sox outfielder. "I do remember him asking questions, and thinking, 'This guy really wants to come pitch in the United States.' He was inquisitive and his energy was warm. He wore a big smile. He was a down-to-earth superstar -- who was absolutely a superstar in Japan. Make no mistake about that. He was both a superstar and he wanted to come play in the United States."
Yet with the Giants, he would not get that opportunity through the posting process. Unlike Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish, who got the opportunity to enter big league rotations in the majors in their prime years, Uehara had to wait until he became a free agent after 10 full seasons pitching for the most famous team in Japan.
By the end of his Yomiuri career, he'd lost his status as staff ace and his spot in the rotation. He spent a very successful year as the Giants closer in 2007, but in 2008 he struggled with injuries, shuttling between the rotation and bullpen en route to a 3.81 ERA.
"When he came to America, he was sort of at the end of his career with the same stuff," noted one international scout who saw Uehara frequently in Japan. "He was really struggling."
That fall explains why Uehara's signing with the Orioles to a two-year, $10 million deal barely made a ripple. It was anything but front page news in Japan, while in the States there were no stories about his famous baseball upbringing, no discussions of his possession of pitches that possessed mythical powers. He was viewed as a back-end starter who might not be able to stick in the rotation in the AL East, and indeed, his move to the bullpen after one year in the States cemented the fact that he was a secondary story among the constellation of Japanese stars playing in the majors.
"I think they go by popularity, the media," said Uehara. "[Pitching in the bullpen is] probably one reason I didn't have the spotlight on me. I don't think the spotlight is going to get brighter, because I'm not a starter. The starters get the spotlight."
Yet whether he realizes it or not, Uehara slowly is commanding a place of distinction. His historic run in the big leagues has forced a swell of attention that will not subside so long as he sustains his jaw-dropping performance.
On a team that seems destined for the playoffs, Uehara has been a massive presence. That was true at the beginning of the year in a setup role in which he imbued an unexpected shock of energy with his efficient success and exuberant high-fives. ("I never saw that. He seemed so much more reserved," rued Kapler. "I remember good high-fives. I would have loved to have felt the force of one of his high-fives, and I don't remember that.") And it has been particularly true as a game-ending anchor, in which Uehara took the Sox' position of greatest instability and turned it into one of historic certainty.
A case can be made that Uehara -- even if briefly -- is amidst one of the greatest stretches ever by a big league closer. It's not merely that he saves games. Uehara dispatches the opposition with a mesmerizing efficiency that denies it hope. He is the unquestioned anchor leg for a team that has the best record in the American League and now appears to be pulling away in the AL East, a pitcher who is making a huge contribution to that push in a period in which he's been better than any of his peers.
There have been nights in the last two-plus months in which Rivera has been human. Ditto Fernando Rodney and Jim Johnson. Uehara? He has been as close to perfect over a two-month period as the Sox could ever have hoped.
"To have the anchor back there, it allows everyone to fall in line behind the starter to bridge back to him," said Farrell. "Knowing that you’ve got him available to us, it’s a luxury for us right now."