BOSTON – For all the Red Sox struggles and offensive difficulties this season, at least there was Koji Uehara: There in the ninth inning, to hold down a lead if his offense was able to give him one.
The almost-always lights out, nearly un-hittable closer has been one of the bright lights in a disappointing season.
But now? As someone texted to me last night, if Sox fans can’t count on Koji, who can they count on?
Uehara entered in the ninth inning of Tuesday’s game against the Cubs at Fenway Park with the score tied. He gave up a first-pitch single to lead-off hitter Anthony Rizzo, a double to Starlin Castro on the sixth pitch of the at-bat, and seven-pitch sacrifice fly to Luis Valbuena, giving the Cubs a 2-1 lead that they held onto for their second win in as many games against the Sox. He got Wellington Castillo to pop out on a fastball and Junior Lake to strike out, swinging an 88-m.p.h. fastball. But the Cubs had gotten to the Sox closer.
Uehara faced five batters in the inning, throwing 20 pitches, 14 for strikes. All the damage was done on Uehara’s venerated splitter. The two hits were the most he has allowed in one inning of work since May 6 against the Reds.
In his last seven outings, spanning seven innings, he has recorded three saves and two wins but also has a blown save and a loss as his ERA has increased from 0.57 to 1.40. In that span, he has allowed four earned runs for an ERA of 5.14, giving up seven hits and a walk with seven strikeouts.
Is it just a blip or is it becoming a trend for the right-hander?
“A number of early swings when he’s given up some base hits it’s been on first or second pitch where he’s trying to get a strike and it’s not the true put-away split,” said manager John Farrell. “That was the case with Rizzo [Tuesday night]. And I thought Castro laid off some splits to get deep into that count, and then gets one up in the strike zone for the double. But it’s been more in the early counts where we’ve seen some of the damage take place.”
In that seven-game stretch, he has given up three home runs, compared to just two in the previous 31 2/3 innings. The five home runs he has allowed this season match his total for 74 1/3 innings all of last season, along with one in 13 2/3 postseason innings.
“I think it’s a little bit of fatigue,” Uehara said through his translator. “I think the command of my split is not quite where I want it to be… There probably needs to be some adjustments to be made.”
What kind of adjustments?
“I probably need to get younger,” said the 39-year-old, tongue in cheek. “Just get some sleep and keep my body rhythm, get sleep, eat well. I think it comes down to basic stuff.”
With the trade deadline approaching, there were several scouts in attendance as other teams have been following the Cubs and Red Sox. A few of them weighed in with their thoughts on Uehara’s performance.
“He had an average fastball, not as deceptive as usual, and an average splitter,” said one scout. “His stuff was basically the same, just missed with some location.”
“His splitter was just tumbling with no bite,” said another.
"I thought his fastball was lighter than usual, not as much movement. Consequently, not the usual separation between fastballs and splits," said a third. "Wear and tear becomes a factor with medium-sized guys like Koji & [Sergio] Romo."
Which could be signs of fatigue.
Catcher A.J. Pierzynski, though, has not seen that.
“[He] hasn’t mentioned anything to me so I don’t’ know anything about that,” Pierzynski said. “Stuff looks the same. They hit a couple of pretty good pitches tonight. That’s it. Those things happen. He’s been pretty darn good all year. So for him to give up a run, those things happen. But Rizzo hit a ball six inches down off the plate away. Castro didn’t hit a bad pitch, and Valbuena hit one just far enough to score the run. Those things happen sometimes.”
Maybe they do. We’re just not used to seeing them happen to Uehara.