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On Koji Uehara, Dennis Eckersley, and closing it out with style and substance

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  September 4, 2013 09:16 AM

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If you like baseball enough that you managed to remain tuned in to NESN Tuesday night even after the ridiculous-on-so-many-levels interview with an obnoxious guy who threw a slice of pizza at another fan six bleepin' years ago, well, at least you were rewarded.

The decision to interview some look-at-me clown whose claim to fame is that he wasted a perfectly edible slice of pizza once was an unnecessary where-are-they-now moment under any circumstances.

But it was particularly egregious in the eighth inning of a 2-1 game against Max Scherzer and the potent Detroit Tigers in what was arguably the most enjoyable, taut and ultimately rewarding victory of the season.

Fortunately, an inning later, Koji Uehara, with Dennis Eckersley providing a soundtrack of excitable commentary as only he can, salvaged the broadcast by doing what they do/did best: they closed the game out with style.

Uehara required all of nine pitches delivered in 3 minutes and 16 seconds to dispatch three Tigers batters -- including familiar pest Jose Iglesias on a three-pitch strikeout to end it -- in the ninth, earning his 17th save in what has been an extraordinary season marked by a recent stretch of absolute perfection. It's almost unfathomable that he is the fourth closer the Red Sox have used this season.

He has not allowed a run since the last day of June, and he has retired the last 21 batters he has faced. In 61.1 innings this season, Uehara has allowed 29 hits and 9 walks while striking out 85. His ERA is 1.16, his WHIP 0.61, and his mannerisms are a blast to the point of infinity. Signing Uehara may be the best transaction Ben Cherington ever makes.

eck1992finn.jpgIf you think I'm overly giddy -- and I'm not sure you do -- just listen to the highlights of Eck's commentary during the ninth inning Wednesday. You know Eck and all he's done: This is a guy who obviously accomplished some rarefied feats during his 24-year big league career. He's a Hall of Famer who had four top-six finishes in the Most Valuable Player balloting from 1988-92, including the double whammy of winning the MVP and the Cy Young in '92 when he saved 51 games with a 1.91 ERA for the A's.

And yet there he was, marveling at Uehara's performance Tuesday night as if he were someone who had never seen anything like it, when in reality he's someone who did the exact same thing to poor, hapless hitters during his untouchable heyday.

Here are a few highlights of Uehara's performance and Eckersley's commentary, beginning with Brayan Pena's at-bat after Andy Dirks popped out on the first pitch of the ninth.

Pena takes strike on on a splitter that appears to fall out of the strike zone: "That's Uehara. That pitch has been consistent for him all year long. Split-finger at the bottom of the strike zone. Might have been a ball. He gets it. He's a strike-machine, he should get it."

The gospel, from one strike-machine to another.

Pena swings and misses another splitter: "That's his pitch. The bottom falls out of this thing consistently."

Pena swings and misses for strike three: "This is phenomenal. This guy is phenomenal. It's incredible. Three split-fingers, all of them down. Pena looks horrible. One for a strike and two out of the zone and that's a punch out."

Don Orsillo introduces the next batter, Iglesias, who doubled in the only Detroit run earlier in the game.

Iglesias takes strike one: "Ninety miles an hour on the black. Strike one. This guy is a machine."

Iglesias takes a big swing and misses for strike two. Eck is silent as Orsillo sets the scene. Iglesias swings at a splitter away for strike three. Save, Uehara. Ballgame, Red Sox: "He is a machine. I mean, this is ridiculous. Punches out two guys just to stay in shape. Split-finger, nasty tonight, he strikes out two guys on it. And the beat goes on for him. One of the best in the business if not the best in the American League. He's the [Craig] Kimbrel of the American League."

Man, I love this line: "Punches out two guys just to stay in shape." And that ninth inning -- to watch and listen to -- is about as fun as September baseball gets.

So then, consider this a tip of the hat to Uehara and Eck, who made it easy to appreciate a fulfilling win while forgetting the nonsense that came before.

Wait, wait, one more thing:

Here's Eck's 1992 season. Again, he was named the Most Valuable Player in the American League that season.

Age ERA G GF SV IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WHIP H/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB Awards
37 1.91 69 65 51 80.0 62 17 5 11 93 195 0.913 7.0 1.2 10.5 8.45 AS,CYA-1,MVP-1
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/4/2013.

Here's Uehara's 2013 so far:

Age ERA G GF SV IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WHIP H/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB Awards
38 1.16 62 31 17 62.1 29 8 5 9 85 362 0.610 4.2 1.3 12.3 9.44
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/4/2013.

I'm not saying he should win any awards, and I know he won't. (Though if September ends up being his third straight scoreless month ...)

His season is actually more similar to Eck's '90 ...

Year Age ERA G GF SV IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WHIP H/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB Awards
1990 35 0.61 63 61 48 73.1 41 5 2 4 73 603 0.614 5.0 0.5 9.0 18.25 AS,CYA-5,MVP-6
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/4/2013.

... when he had an 0.61 ERA and somehow finished fifth in the MVP balloting but sixth in the Cy Young voting:

Those charts perhaps add another clue as to why Eckersley is so impressed with Uehara's work:

Uehara has been as good this season than Eck ever was, even at his award-winning peak.

As Eck says from time to time himself, how crazy is that?

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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