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Adam Kaufman

Absent Koji Uehara, Edward Mujica isn’t the choice for Red Sox – he’s the answer

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A dozen games into the season, the Red Sox sit in fourth-place in the American League East. For any number of reasons, there’s no need to panic, but health has certainly proven to be a bigger obstacle than anyone could have feared in mid-April.

Shane Victorino and Will Middlebrooks are already on the disabled list, and closer extraordinaire Koji Uehara may be heading there as well.

The 39-year-old’s shoulder stiffness will be further evaluated over the weekend with a throwing program on Sunday, which may result in a lengthy absence – or at least longer than any customary stretch of days off – if things don’t go well.

This is why former Cardinals closer Edward Mujica is here and, mark my words, he’s going to excel.

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Mujica drew the ire of fans and media when he struggled mightily in Boston’s home opener in an eventual 6-2 loss to Milwaukee. He entered in a tie game and was the difference-maker in allowing four ninth inning runs while recording just two outs. He was miserable.

In his three other appearances, however, the 29-year-old has worked 2 2/3 scoreless innings, surrendered two hits, walked one, and struck out three. His ERA is still a robust 10.80 overall, but you wouldn’t know it after his splitter was dazzling in his first opportunity to close for Boston on Friday night in the Bronx, when he threw 13 pitches for a perfect ninth.

As manager John Farrell has acknowledged, Mujica’s success is no accident. In parts of two seasons in St. Louis, the long-time National Leaguer recorded a 2.27 ERA over 91 innings, and he walked only eight batters. Last season, he saved 37 games before suffering a groin injury in August and eventually losing his job to Trevor Rosenthal. Mujica pitched just two postseason innings and did not appear in the World Series before changing pennant-winning sides in the offseason.

Nevertheless, his 2013 season and shorter run in the year prior were exceptional. He was signed by Boston to be the premier setup man for Uehara, but also to provide bullpen depth.

That need, unfortunately, has arisen early.

While the Sox “gather information” on Uehara’s injury – something he has reportedly already pitched through – and determine whether he’ll need a stint on the DL, Mujica will have his chance to shine. Still, in the hopes this is a brief disappearance for the club’s primary closer, I’d argue Mujica should continue to receive opportunities even when Uehara is healthy.

We know how good Boston’s fourth closer option was in 2013. He was arguably the team’s Most Valuable Player as he turned in one of the best single-seasons a closer has ever had. While boasting a 1.09 ERA and allowing only 33 hits, he worked a career-high 74 1/3 innings, more than double the 36 over 37 appearances for Texas in 2012 – when he last experienced shoulder discomfort and missed two months. In the playoffs, Uehara gave up only one run over 13 2/3 innings on the way to the ultimate parade of high-fives.

Now, though, he’s a year older. It’s imperative the Red Sox monitor his usage and preserve his stamina for September and, hopefully, beyond. It’s asinine to expect him to repeat what he did in 2013, no matter how good he’s looked since the spring.

That’s where Mujica comes in. Rather than turning to Uehara once every 2.2 regular season games – as the Sox did a year ago (73 appearances) – the new guy should see a good number of those chances, even with his elder ready and available. It’s in the best long-term interests of both the team and its star.

Forget about Opening Day. Mujica is up for the challenge, and he’ll eventually be general manager Ben Cherington’s best move of the winter – just like his predecessor a year earlier.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman


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