The Red Sox would really prefer not to plug Koji Uehara into a situation where he's entering the game with men on base. That's been apparent for most of this year, and especially after mid-June, since when John Farrell had summoned him under those circumstances only once before Saturday.
But if Boston gets to the playoffs, preference be damned because they may need their best reliever in spots like that. So Saturday was an encouraging sign that he can handle that task.
He entered with things unraveling -- in the game specifically, but perhaps in the season, too, if he failed. After playing all afternoon with a four-run lead furnished when Jonny Gomes followed Mike Napoli's RBI single with a three-run homer in the first, old friend Adrian Gonzalez had just halved the Sox advantage with a two-run double in the bottom of the eighth. Then Hanley Ramirez drew a walk to put the tying runs on base.
The Dodgers had knocked out starter Jon Lester, then dispensed of Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow, Boston's two best setup men. And, once Ramirez reached, the Sox' win expectancy suddenly dipped down to 86 percent -- which was lower than it had been since Lester recorded the first out of the fourth inning.
The Sox had spent most of the day in the low-90s per that estimate, so this was a game Farrell couldn't afford to let slip away, especially when having begun the afternoon in a virtual tie with Tampa Bay atop the American League East. So unlike he did under the slightly different circumstances in San Francisco a few nights earlier, he acted with urgency.
Like the Sox, the Dodgers have thrived this season in the late innings, and have made a habit of coming from behind -- but by bringing on Uehara, Farrell never let LA get closer to those Hollywood dramatics than they were with men on first and second with two outs. A.J. Ellis gave the Boston closer a battle after falling behind 0-and-2, but Uehara escaped with his 79th strikeout of the year. Instantly the Sox' win expectancy jumped back up to 94 percent. Nine pitches later, eight of them strikes, it hopped to 100 with a perfect ninth.
The result was much better than it was July 6 against the Angels, when Uehara came in with the bases loaded and the Sox ahead by four with two outs, but blew the game thanks in no small part to an error by Brandon Snyder. That was the last time before Saturday that he came in without the bases clean, though his four-out save against the Dodgers reaffirmed what he showed early in the year. (And what had him so excited to give all those high-fives.)
Take away the meltdown in Anaheim, and Uehara has now allowed just four of 18 inherited runners to score this season. And since being traded to Texas halfway through 2011, just 12 of the 53 (22.6 percent) he's inherited to cross the plate. Over that span he's been brought in with runners aboard 24 times; only eight times has a runner scored, and only twice has he given up a lead.
In his big-league career, Uehara has basically been equally tough whether pitching with the bases empty (.198, .576 OPS) or occupied (.196, .570), though this year he's been even better with men on. In those spots, he's held opponents to a .129 average and .443 OPS. Plus, with an 8.78 strikeout-to-walk ratio, there aren't many types of pitchers who fit better into a situation where they can ill-afford to give away a base or could really use a strikeout.
Those was the scenario that presented itself Saturday. It's a scenario that is likely to arise in the playoffs. And it's a scenario, though they'd prefer not to if it can be avoided, that the Sox should call on Uehara with the same confidence they always do.
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