October 21, 2013

On Baseball: Uehara no longer an afterthought among Red Sox newcomers

While other free-agent acquisitions drew more attention, Koji Uehara has been indispensable.

Scenes and observations of a team bound for the World Series.

KOJI UEHARA hadn’t seemed his exuberant self the last couple days. The Boston Red Sox have leaned more and more on the slender, 38-year-old relief pitcher.

“I am tired right now,” Uehara said through an interpreter in his last interview Saturday night. He could take his MVP trophy from the American League Championship Series home and begin to rest up for the World Series, which starts Wednesday.

Just how much of a surprise is Uehara?

Look at the Red Sox media guide cover, published during spring training. Eleven players are showcased: six returning players and five new players expected to make an impact.

The five newcomers: Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, Mike Napoli and Joel Hanrahan.

No Koji.

Of course, Hanrahan who was supposed to be the Red Sox closer. When he underwent season-ending surgery, Andrew Bailey was supposed to step in. Another surgery, another closer gone.

Enter Uehara, who has performed brilliantly with lock-down efficiency.

“They caught lightning in a bottle,” Tigers Manager Jim Leyland said. “He’s been absolutely terrific, there’s no question about that … probably as important as anybody they’ve got on the team.”

Maybe he’ll make the cover next year?

Uehara, ever the humble man, spoke of his reasons for coming to Boston.

“It was more of how the team wanted me,” he said, “their passion to acquire me and their sincerity. I felt honored to play for this team.”

BEN CHERINGTON is the one who recruited Uehara, as well as several other key components.

His first big acquisition occurred a year ago Monday - the signing of Manager John Farrell.

Farrell took the helm and steered this team as well as anyone could.

When Farrell returned to the clubhouse after his postgame interview Saturday, he found Cherington waiting in the manager’s office, ready with a congratulatory hug.

JOSE IGLESIAS was involved in Cherington’s biggest trade when Boston sent the gifted shortstop to Detroit in a three-team deal to acquire pitcher Jake Peavy.

Iglesias played well in the ALCS. But he made a key error in Boston’s huge seventh inning.

With one out and runners on first and second, Jacoby Ellsbury hit a grounder up the middle. Iglesias got to the ball, knowing he’d have to hurry for a double play. But he did not field the grounder cleanly. Instead of Detroit getting out of the inning, Boston had the bases loaded. Shane Victorino followed with the grand slam.

“I think he could have (had the double play),” Leyland said. “Even with Ellsbury running. It was hit pretty hard. But that’s part of the game.”

FRANKLIN MORALES was not among the relievers Farrell praised after the game. And had the Red Sox lost Saturday, Farrell’s use of Morales would have been second-guessed.

Starter Clay Buchholz needed to come out in the sixth inning. That was obvious. With runners on first and second, left-handed Prince Fielder was coming to bat.

Farrell has three left-handers in the bullpen: reliable Craig Breslow; converted starter Felix Doubront, whose discomfort as a reliever can be evident in his lack of command; and Morales, whose one previous playoff appearance against Tampa Bay in the division series began with a walk and a single.

On Saturday, Morales again gave up a walk, then a two-run single.

Morales is a risk in high-pressure situations. It will be curious how he’s used in the World Series.

SHANE VICTORINO slumped in the ALCS. Even with his grand slam, he hit .125.

“Hey, it’s not the first time my back was against the wall or people doubted me,” Victorino said. “I’ve always been that kind of guy. It’s been my drive.

“People said you’re a little too small. In high school, a scout told my mom, ‘he’ll never be a major league player.’

“It’s stuff that motivates me.”

BIG HOME RUNS gave Boston this series win.

David Ortiz tied Game 2 with an eighth-inning grand slam on a hanging change-up. Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s single in the ninth won it.

Napoli’s home run on a misplaced fastball gave Boston a 1-0 win in Game 3.

Then Victorino’s blast on a curveball over the middle of the plate clinched the series.

“The difference really, when you look at the series, is they hit a couple of big bombs and we just didn’t quite do that,” Leyland said. “Three really timely home runs.”

AND THE FINAL word comes from Victorino: “I knew all along this was going to be a special team.”

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:kthomas@pressherald.comTwitter: ClearTheBases
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