Uehara makes debut look simple
Using two pitches, Japanese righty goes two scoreless frames
JUPITER, Fla. -- No pressure. No problem.
The unflappable Koji Uehara made his stateside debut for the Orioles on Friday, overcoming a massive media presence documenting his transition and the initial trepidation related to facing big league hitters. Uehara used just two of his pitches -- fastball and forkball -- and still fired two scoreless innings in a 3-2 loss to Florida.
"Lord knows, today was just elementary school for him. He's pitched in very big games. This was nothing."
And that was the bottom line. Uehara, a two-time Sawamura Award winner for Japan's Yomiuri Giants, came over to the Major Leagues as one of the most decorated pitchers in his homeland's history. And he did so without a lot of domestic acclaim, even as he gets shadowed by 10-20 Japanese reporters on a daily basis.
Uehara joked at his introductory news conference that he'll have no problems with the American media as long as reporters agree not to show up at his house. And he's been respectful and polite to a fault, giving daily briefings to the Japanese media and patiently answering many of the same questions through an interpreter.
On Friday, though, Uehara claimed that his nerves didn't really affect him. And it was easy to understand why when you consider the unthreatening, neutral atmosphere provided by Roger Dean Stadium.
"All I felt was joy," he said via translator Jiwon Bang. "To be able to stand on that mound was joyful."
If Uehara continues to pitch that way, he'll give his teammates their own reasons to be joyful. Uehara retired the side on eight pitches in the first inning, and he returned for another impressive frame in the second.
The veteran engaged slugger Jorge Cantu in a 10-pitch at-bat that resulted in a rare walk, and then he buckled down after Cody Ross reached base on a ball that left fielder Luke Scott lost in the sun. Uehara sandwiched two strikeouts around a fly ball to escape the inning and end his outing on a positive note.
"He's pitched long enough to kind of figure things out," said pitching coach Rick Kranitz. "He worked through some things. We got to see a play that should've been an out and wasn't an out. You got to see him turn it up and pick up his outfielder. I was real pleased with how he threw the baseball today."
"It was pretty impressive," added veteran catcher Gregg Zaun. "Fastballs to both sides of the plate [and the forkball] was there ahead or behind on the count. He commanded both sides to both hitters, righty and lefty. It looks like he's pretty quick to the plate, so he's going to control the running game as well."
Uehara decided on his own just to work on the fastball and the forkball Friday, and he'll mix in other offerings as the spring season progresses. Perhaps the best evaluation of his talent comes from the people who stand in against him, and at least one of the opponent's starters felt Uehara will be effective in the regular season.
"You can tell that he's a seasoned pitcher," said Ross, Florida's right fielder. "He's got good control. He knows how to pitch. I think he's going to be a good big league starter. ... He has good stuff. He worked the plate in and out. I don't know if it's a changeup or a splitter. He used it effectively. He's good."
Both Kranitz and Zaun said that the communication issue has been overblown, especially during the game. Uehara is locked in enough to know what he needs to do to any given batter, and Zaun said he can communicate with him through hand gestures and eye contact in a way that renders the language barrier moot.
"I just kind of pat him on the backside and said 'Good job,'" said Zaun. "We had a little bit of miscommunication on one sign and I went to explain it to him. He's a pretty intelligent guy. He picks things up pretty good.
"And as I keep saying, there's a language in baseball that's worldwide. It doesn't have anything to do with English or Japanese. A gesture, a look, and you can communicate a ton of information."
So is all the attention worth it? Will Uehara's talents and approach translate to the Major League game? It might be a little early to answer those questions, but Zaun said Uehara won't be cowed by the challenge.
"They deal with stuff that we don't even go through," Zaun said. "Here's a guy that won the equivalent of their Cy Young [Award]. We were thumbing through the paper the other day and there was a little caricature of him naked like a baby. You're looking at it going, 'How do you guys deal with this?' I'm sure the sensationalism of the media is something that they're used to. He's got three or four guys with him all the time [and] he's got a gaggle of press that are here in America just for him. I'm sure it's not something that even fazes him. He's so used to it at this point, especially playing for the Giants over there. Those guys are followed by people all the time."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.