DETROIT — The names were different. So were their personalities, repertoires, and radar-gun readings.
But the work Keith Foulke and Jonathan Papelbon performed en route to the Red Sox’ respective championships in 2004 and ’07 was exceptional and essential. The duck-boat engines don’t roar without them.
They were superb closers, masters of the high-tension wire that is the ninth inning. And when they recorded the last out — the final out, the one that culminated with a leap into Jason Varitek‘s arms and a pig-pile of delirious millionaires — they created scenes suitable for framing.
Foulke was relentless against all odds in 2004. Papelbon was electrifying and overpowering in ’07.
And yet we’ve never seen anything — here, the Bronx, Oakland in the Eck Era, anywhere — quite like Koji Uehara ’13.
Uehara saved the Red Sox — literally, figuratively, and any other way you want to interpret it — once again Thursday night, recording the final five outs in a 4-3 victory over the Tigers at Comerica Park to give the Red Sox a 3-2 advantage in this series.
Uehara was called upon to get five or more outs four times during the regular season. Three of those times occurred after he took over as the closer in mid-June.
Thursday marked the first time he was asked to get more than four outs in seven appearances this postseason. There was no greater indication of the urgency of the moment, no clearer confirmation of the Red Sox’ acknowledgement that they must win this game with Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander looming in Games 6 and 7, than seeing John Farrell signal for Uehara with one out in the eighth and Jhonny Peralta due up for Detroit.
Uehara’s season has been almost beyond belief. He went nearly three months without allowing a run. He retired 37 consecutive batters. His WHIP of 0.57 is the best in history for a pitcher who threw more than 50 innings in a season. And he’s been as fun as he is effective, the master of a truly joyous high-five celebration after each save.
Save for a hiccup in Tampa Bay in which an obscure catcher named Jose Lobaton reminded him that walk-off home runs do happen, he’s been the same machine this postseason. But five outs? Against these Tigers, who scored 796 runs this season? With all of this at stake? Shouldn’t it have ratched up the degree of difficulty a little bit?
Maybe it did. After all, it took the unfathomably efficient Uehara 27 pitches to record the five outs. He even went to a couple of three-ball counts, uncommon for a pitcher who walked just nine in 74 innings during the regular season.
Peralta, that first batter, worked a 3-1 count before swinging through an 87 mph fastball, fouling off three more pitches, then giving in to temptation on an unhittable splitter than would have been ball four.
The final batter, old friend Jose Iglesias, who is carrying himself this series like a man hungry for vengeance, put up an unexpected battle with no one on in the ninth. Iglesias fought Uehara to nine pitches, including four foul balls, before popping to Dustin Pedroia and allowing all of New England to exhale.
Uehara’s effort capped 3.2 superb innings by the bullpen in relief of Jon Lester, who earned his first ALCS win with 5.1 workmanlike innings of two-run baseball. Junichi Tazawa allowed a run and an inherited runner to score but induced two huge double plays — including one by Miguel Cabrera, who must consider Tazawa a nemesis at this point — in his 1.1 innings of work.
Then Craig Breslow, the bridge to Uehara once again, recording the final out of the seventh and the first of the eighth.
“Those three guys have pitched outstanding for us in the postseason,” said Red Sox manager John Farrell. “From Taz turning it over to Bres, and a five-out save by Koji, he continues to be so efficient. In games here against the Tigers, with his back against the wall, he’s been outstanding.”
It should be noted that their yeoman’s work was made possible in a way by the performance of the Red Sox’s less-heralded relievers in Game 4.
Brandon Workman, Ryan Dempster, Felix Doubront and Franklin Morales combined for five shutout innings in relief of Jake Peavy in the Red Sox’ 7-3 loss in Game 4, allowing Uehara, Breslow and Tazawa to steal a day of rest.
Uehara and the pitching saved the game. But the offense won it in the early innings. Mike Napoli put the Sox up 1-0 in the second inning with a 470-foot blast to dead center field that may well have cleared all Comerica Park boundaries and headed for Dearborn.
Jonny Gomes reached on an error by Miguel Cabrera at third base, who may still have been marveling at Napoli’s drive. One out later, Xander Bogaerts, the phenomenal j21-year-old prospect who already seems like he belongs, dug in.
Making his first start of the series in place of Will Middlebrooks, he missed badly on the second pitch he saw from Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez. No matter. On the next pitch, he turned on a second slider of almost identical speed and trajectory roped it into left field for a double, moving Gomes to third.
The kid learns fast. In a related note: He’d better be in the lineup every day until there are no more games to be played.
“Sometimes I can’t even believe I’m here,” Bogaerts said. “I’m 21 and I started the season in Double A, and now I’m here in the ALCS one win away from the World Series.”
The Red Sox added their fourth and final run in the third inning when Napoli, who had three hits, chugged home on a wild pitch.
The Tigers tried to chip away — a run in the fifth, another in the sixth, and one more in the seventh — and the vise seemed to tighten.
But worries? Once again, they were unfounded. Farrell turned to Uehara, and Uehara turned the Tigers away.
It’s a weird juxtaposition. Uehara’s season has been beyond belief. It marvels even Dennis Eckersley, who accomplished similarly extraordinary ninth-inning feats himself once upon a time.
And yet every time he comes to the mound, in any situation or circumstance against any hitter, he has our faith, and damned if he doesn’t reward it.
Five more wins, and he’ll join Foulke and Papelbon in the exclusive club of champion Red Sox closers.
He may be in a more exclusive club already. Is there a closer you’ve ever dared to believe in more?