Uehara's focus on future, not past success
Red Sox confident closer can once again be one of game's best this season
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Out on Field 3 on Monday morning, the pitch started at Dustin Pedroia's belt and dramatically swooped down to his feet in an unfair instant. The Red Sox's star second baseman swung awkwardly at the pitch and then laughed at himself.
"That was sick," bellowed Pedroia in reference to a wicked splitter by closer Koji Uehara, the type of pitch that had as much to do with the Red Sox winning the World Series last year as anything else.
But later in the batting-practice session between teammates, some even rarer things happened.
Mike Napoli hit two missiles -- one off the chain-link fence in left and another that nearly had home-run distance in right. Pedroia ripped one to the gap in right-center.
"The only team that hits him is us," mused pitching coach Juan Nieves as he hustled between fields.
"Remember, the only guys that can break you are on your team, so don't worry about it," Pedroia playfully told Uehara.
Even if Napoli and Pedroia could generate some bragging rights against their teammate during BP, they -- along with everyone else affiliated with the Red Sox -- are quite pleased that Uehara will once again be closing games for Boston during the 2014 season.
Uehara is coming off a Tour De Force type of season.
When the Red Sox clinched the American League East title on Sept. 20, Uehara finished the game with a strikeout. He then stood on the mound and finished off the Rays, Tigers and Cardinals with whiffs in the three postseason rounds.
"I was just trying to get the final out. That's the only thing I was thinking of -- nothing more, nothing less," Uehara said. "Of course, when we finally won it, there was an explosion of enjoyment there."
It was a stylish way for the righty to finish perhaps the best season by a closer in Red Sox history.
So when Uehara went back to Japan during the offseason, you probably expected he was given the treatment previously reserved for the likes of Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki.
Instead, Uehara paints a much different picture.
"Nothing has changed at all," Uehara said. "I don't realize any changes. I think me and [Junichi Tazawa], we just lack the star power."
Keep in mind that Uehara wasn't saying this as a complaint. He comes across as relatively ego-free and always driven to keep proving himself.
There were maybe some small hints that Uehara came home a champion for the first time in his Major League career.
"Within the family members, sure, there were some parties, but nothing so grandeur, or nothing too big," Uehara said.
Only when prompted did Uehara mention that he wrote a book over the winter, and landed an endorsement for a brand of beer in Japan.
"Please try it," Uehara said. "It's coming here, so we'll give you some."
However, Uehara doesn't want anything given to him -- not even the closer's role that is clearly his to lose.
"I feel that I still have to earn it," Uehara said. "I'm just preparing accordingly to win that position."
Perhaps it took a monster season from Uehara, capped by the World Series celebration, to realize that he has been dominating hitters for the past few seasons.
The only thing that could stop him is father time. The righty turns 39 in April. But Uehara might just have the weapon -- that lethal splitter -- to ward off the impact of age for another year or two.
"When you have a pitch that's so stinking good and so much better than everybody else's in the game … We all have our time, but I don't see him slowing down in the near future," said right-hander Jake Peavy.
Despite the cultural difference, Uehara has a clear bond with his teammates.
Of the rips Pedroia and Napoli took off him on Monday, Uehara could only smile.
"I think it was a difference in salary," Uehara said. "You could see that in how they performed against me."
In truth, Uehara has turned into a money pitcher, one who will earn a modest $4.25 million in the option year of his contract.
Though Uehara's montage of 2013 highlights was probably as impressive as anyone on the Red Sox, it doesn't sound as if he spent a lot of time over the winter celebrating his work.
"It's all in the past," Uehara said. "It's not productive, so I didn't really reflect on it."
Is it fair for the Red Sox to expect Uehara to match his numbers from last year, which included a 1.09 ERA and a .130 opponents' batting average?
"Totally fair," quipped manager John Farrell.
On a more serious note, the Red Sox are quite confident that the closer can once again be one of the best in the league.
"Granted, his performance last year was outstanding," Farrell said. "The line that he put up, the time of the year, the game, the importance of when he put it. I keep going back to the previous years. This is a very successful pitcher every year he's been here in the States."