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Aggressive use of Uehara now could pay dividends come October

Posted by David D'Onofrio  September 11, 2013 02:11 AM

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In his first couple months since assuming the closer's job from Andrew Bailey, Koji Uehara didn't enter a game prior to the ninth inning -- a byproduct of both his new role and the Red Sox' acknowledged efforts to limit the usage of their 38-year-old right-hander.

But with Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez on base, and the Dodgers having sliced their deficit to 4-2 with two outs in the eighth inning on Aug. 24, John Farrell took no chances. The manager summoned Uehara and asked his ace reliever to record a four-out save.

Fifteen pitches later, that request was granted. And with that, Uehara's role changed a bit. He was called upon for another four-out save six days later, and then again on Tuesday night to make Clay Buchholz a 2-0 winner in his long-awaited return. In between those two appearances he also pitched the ninth inning with Boston enjoying a four-run lead over the Yankees -- meaning it wasn't a save situation.

For that reason it was cast as something of an unconventional decision from Farrell. It was aggressive. But when considering it in conjunction with the urgency inherent in asking the closer to record three four-out saves in a span of 16 games, it speaks to the mindset of Boston's brass.

It suggests that Farrell and his coaches believe the best way to ensure Uehara is ready for the rigors of October is to render late September meaningless, and let him rest then. Obviously the only way to do that is to wrap things up in the American League East, and the AL in general, as soon as possible. The more wins they can put in the bank now, the fewer they have to strain themselves over earning later. And the easiest way to achieve that is to win as often as possible, and particularly by not letting slip away an opportunity for victory that presents itself in the late innings.

So Farrell has decided to take no chances in those situations. Rather than try to coax an extra out from a setup man, or let the contrived details of the save statistic dictate his decision, he has handed the ball to the pitcher who has retired 31 straight batters and hasn't allowed a run since June.

That may mean using him more than they have previously, or more than they'd prefer to under ideal circumstances. But taxing him now could pay significant dividends later, since locking down those wins have been significant in the Sox opening up leads of 8.5 games in the East, and 4 games in the AL -- and since the sooner the dwindling doubt is removed from each of those races, the sooner Boston can really begin gearing up for the postseason.

The sooner it can start letting Uehara recharge after an onerous season. And the sooner his arm will be ready for whatever they need from it in October.

Red Sox 2, Rays 0
4-for-29, BB, 9 K, 2B
Dustin Pedroia, 2B 1-for-4, 2 K, SB: Tuesday was the first time this season that Pedroia batted anywhere but third in the order, moving up to leadoff for the first time since 2009. Historically, his average batting first is 46 points lower than it is at any other spot in the lineup where he's started more than a dozen games.
Shane Victorino, CF 0-for-4, 2 K: He's now hitting .200 against David Price this season, and is hitting .197 with a .501 OPS against the Rays in general -- though he's reached in five of 10 trips against Wednesday starter Alex Cobb.
David Ortiz, DH 0-for-4: He went 0-for-4, but he made Price earn those outs. He saw 22 pitches over that quartet of plate appearances, especially impressive considering he didn't strike out.
Mike Napoli, 1B 1-for-3, R, BB, K, 2B: The reigning AL co-player of the week keyed Boston's lone rally of the night with his 35th double, a ball crushed just beyond the reach of center fielder Desmond Jennings.
Jonny Gomes, LF 1-for-4, R, RBI: The Sox had only four at-bats all night with a runner in scoring position -- and luckily for Boston, Gomes was in the box for two of them. He improved his average to .352 in those situations by delivering Napoli with a single in the fifth. He also alertly advanced on the throw to the plate, setting up another run.
Daniel Nava, LF 1-for-2: Up against Price, John Farrell decided he needed to manufacture a run -- and Nava helped do that. With Gomes on second and none out in the fifth, he laid down his second sacrifice bunt of the season.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C 0-for-2, RBI, K: Saltalamacchia still doesn't have a hit in a while -- he's 0-for-20 since Aug. 28 -- though he got the job done situationally, driving a fly ball to the warning track with Gomes on third and one out.
Will Middlebrooks, 3B 0-for-3, K: His streak of five straight multi-hit games came to an end as Price pounded him with strikes. Middlebrooks hung tough, seeing 19 pitches, but the relentless Price threw only four of them for balls.
Stephen Drew, SS 0-for-3, 2 K: After an off-day, Farrell wanted to get Drew back in the routine rather than letting him sit another day in favor of Xander Bogaerts. The manager likely wasn't shocked by the 0-for-3, but was willing to accept out of respect for the importance of rhythm.
9 IP, 4 H, 3 BB, 9 K, 2B
Clay Buchholz, SP 5 IP, 3 H, BB, 6 K: The Rays have not been swinging the bats well for a while now -- but, still, there's a good chance they'll be a playoff team, so don't discount Buchholz' performance as an indication of how he could help in October.
Craig Breslow, RP 2 IP, 2 BB: He pitched multiple innings, and faced eight hitters, only one of them a lefty. Truly versatile, the lefty has pitched -- and pitched effectively -- in all sorts of situations this season, in which his ERA is now 2.01.
Junichi Tazawa, RP 0.2 IP, H, K: Farrell wasted no time in going to his closer after Yunel Escobar's two-out double in the eighth, so it wasn't a great appearance for Tazawa -- but it was good enough with Koji Uehara waiting.
Koji Uehara, RP 1.1 IP, 2 K: In getting four outs he used only 13 pitches -- 12 strikes. The craziest thing about his season, though, may be that despite 91 strikeouts to nine walks, his 10.11 K:BB ratio is actually his WORST since 2009.
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About the author

Dave D'Onofrio is a sports journalist who focuses on the Red Sox and Patriots, and also writes's "Off The Field" blog about what Boston's sportsmen do away from the More »

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