He was the consummate shutdown closer. But now it may be time to shut him down.
Koji Uehara is in a big time funk. He's lost the pinpoint control of his famous split-finger fastball. And he may be tiring from two seasons of heavy lifting out of the Boston bullpen.
Uehara blew a second straight save opportunity Monday night -- his fourth overall in 30 chances -- but he managed to pick up a cheap win in the Red Sox 10-inning, 4-3 win over Toronto.
"I'm willing to take a break for a month," Uehara joked to reports in Toronto Monday night. "See you next year."
Not a bad idea after last night.
The latest implosion came at the Rogers Centre where the enigmatic Clay Buchholz was cruising along and manhandling the Blue Jays before running into trouble in the ninth inning, loading the bases before turning the game over to the Red Sox closer. Uehara came in and promptly allowed all three runners to cross the plate, the back-breaker being a two-run double to left by Edwin Encarnacion that sent the game to extra frames.
Unfortunately, hat wasn't Uehara's worst performance of late.
On Friday with the last place Red Sox leading the Mariners 3-0 in the ninth, Uehara gave up five runs to give Seattle the win -- the most runs he's ever given up in relief. The Red Sox had been 44-0 when leading after eight innings before Uehara came undone.
In the last four appearances, the 39-year-old Uehara has given up seven runs on 10 hits -- five for extra bases -- in 3.1 innings of work, his ERA rising from 1.27 to 2.25 during this horrendous stretch.
The reliever says the innings load is not a factor in his poor performance of late.
"I'm not making the pitches I need to," Uehara told reports via a translator in Toronto. "It's nothing about fatigue. It’s about my split. I’m not controlling it... All I can say is I'm not finishing the pitches as I want to."
Red Sox manager John Farrell believes the Red Sox closer may be tiring as the season wears on.
"I'm sure it’s part of it,” Farrell told reporters in Toronto. "To say to what extent, that’s probably debatable. But there’s no denying the number of appearances that he’s had over a very extended year last year, and the number of appearances this year. We try to give him ample rest between outings, but he’s been in a little bit of a tough stretch of late."
Last season, Uehara was the definition of a shut-down closer, breaking records in the process. His .0.57 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) was the best in major league history. From June 1 on, Uehara gave up just four earned runs in 51 relief appearances as the Red Sox cruised into the postseason where he closed out all seven of his save opportunities while allowing just one earned run.
Since the beginning of 2013, Uehara has pitched 148 innings the past two seasons. Across the majors, only teammate Junichi Tazawa has appeared in more games (145) over the last two seasons.
In April after five straight scoreless appearances, the Red Sox shut Uehara down because of shoulder stiffness. Since 2009 when he signed with the Orioles, Uehara has been on the disabled list five times, twice with a strained elbow tendon, twice with a strained hamstring, and once with a back injury that limited him to 37 appearances with the Rangers in 2012.
"Maybe [there's] not as consistent finish to his stuff," Red Sox manager John Farrell told reporters after last night's loss in Toronto. "Whether it’s the life to his fastball or the depth to his split, more the later action of both pitches. When he’s been on the plate, that’s when he hasn’t been able to maybe get away with a pitch that’s been slightly mislocated."
The Red Sox opted not to move Uehara at the trade deadline, when he was sporting a 1.48 ERA in 49 innings pitched. Now they have to decide if they want to offer a closer who will turn 40 next season a qualifying offer for around $15 million this offseason. That decision suddenly looms larger with the aging closer.
There is one upside to Uehara's recent woes on the mound: David Ortiz doesn't have to be worried about aggravating his back picking up Koji Uehara after a big save.