Uehara-mania taking root in Baltimore
Injury-prone right-hander flourishing in new role as closer
NEW YORK -- Orioles closer Koji Uehara and his sideburns are not superhuman. But, as evidenced in the past two months, they're pretty darn close.
Uehara blew his first save opportunity in eight tries on Wednesday afternoon, handing the Yankees a bit of respectability back in avoiding a series sweep to last-place Baltimore on their home terrain. Taking three consecutive series games in the Bronx -- last accomplished by the O's in June 1986 -- would have certainly been a rare feat.
Watching Uehara -- who had pitched to a 1.44 ERA since July 9 prior to that -- surrender a one-run lead is becoming nearly as scarce.
"Obviously, he didn't get the save [on Wednesday], but he's been lights-out for us," starter Brad Bergesen said of Uehara, who notched his first career Major League save Aug. 21 and has been a key cog in the Orioles' resurgence. "He's great in that role."
"It's been great, watching-wise," reliever Matt Albers said. "Any time you have the back of your bullpen set, it lines everybody else up. You know he's got the ninth and that's going to be OK. It's been really big for us."
"Ever since he's been back, every time they've called on him, he's been ready."
And that has been perhaps the toughest test for Uehara, who tossed three consecutive games over the weekend: proving his durability.
A former closer with the Yomiuri Giants, this is a role Uehara has craved since the decision this spring became final -- Koji, the Orioles' first Japanese-born player, would be a part of their bullpen in 2010. Except he wasn't, at least not right away. Injury-plagued as a starter in '09, Uehara opened this season on the disabled list with a left hamstring strain that kept him sidelined until May 6. Two weeks later, he was back on the shelf, this time with a right forearm strain similar to what shut him down for good last September.
Uehara returned again in late June and, buoyed by the extra rest afforded from the All-Star break, pitched to a 1.23 ERA in the seven July outings that followed. Follow that up with a 0.66 August ERA -- which amounted to one earned run over 13 2/3 innings -- and a consistent ninth-inning nod from new manager Buck Showalter, and you can start to understand how Koji-mania has taken shape.
Even if its namesake does not.
"I'm doing the same thing whenever I got to the mound," Uehara said, through translator Jiwon Bang, of his new ninth-inning duties. "It's more what people think of me. I'm showing what I can do and it's their perception [that has changed]."
Uehara -- who can be a free agent at the end of the season -- isn't just changing how he's perceived in the Orioles organization. His performance in the ninth-inning -- Wednesday's game aside -- has enabled him to shut down lethal offensive teams like Texas, Tampa Bay, and, yes, the Yankees. Uehara posted a perfect ninth inning in Monday's 4-3 win, recording a pair of game-ending strikeouts that left Curtis Granderson and Colin Curtis heading sheepishly back to the bench.
"He doesn't throw very hard, but man, he hits every spot," said reliever Michael Gonzalez, originally signed to be the team's closer but relegated to the earlier innings given Uehara's emergence. "[Opposing hitters] see an 85 mile-an-hour fastball, you don't think he's going to throw it again, and there he goes, right back at you. It's different.
"He's got guts. You don't see many people doing things like that."
"I asked [Rangers infielder] Michael Young about [how Koji is effective], because everyone looks at velocity and goes, 'How is that happening?'" Showalter said. "But talking around to [Matt] Wieters and the [rest of the] catchers, I got a pretty good feel for it.
"I'm not going to broadcast it," Showalter said with a mischievous smile. "The presentation [Koji] makes, he's a strike-thrower too. That always helps."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.