Always Be Closing

How did a 38-year-old become the most feared reliever in baseball? Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley explains Koji Uehara’s dominance.

boston red sox world series koji uehara pitcher closer

Photo via AP

Even at the beginning of the season, I thought he was going to be a big part of the bullpen. I was taken by his enthusiasm. How could you not be? The high-fives—it’s like the sixth inning and he was doing that. It lightens up the club. You’re so serious and so focused and then you see that and it’s just—emotion. It’s infectious.

He just hadn’t had the opportunity to close games. In Baltimore, he was a setup guy. But if you look at Koji’s career, it’s there—you know, no walks, lots of strikeouts. That’s why Texas went out and gave up Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter for him. But they didn’t think he would be durable enough to close. It turns out he was as durable as anybody. And the Red Sox thought they could watch him a little more closely in the closer role because you can be careful with him there.

I can’t think of anybody I’ve seen command the strike zone the way Koji did, let alone someone in the position he was in. Normally, pitchers in that position throw hard, like really borderline wild. Koji didn’t bring cheese, but it’s fascinating to watch him because of his precision. He has a very simple delivery—there’s not a lot going on. And yet he’s deceptive, too: The hitters can’t pick up the ball. If you don’t pick it up, it looks faster. There’s just a mystique to him.

And Koji doesn’t throw right down the middle. He hits the corner or he’ll throw it up in the strike zone if he thinks you’re swinging. But the most incredible thing is his splitter is just so consistent. And he can make the ball go two ways: It looks like it fades away from a left-handed hitter, and he can make it go the other way to get the right-hand hitter. And they swing at it! The only guy who he reminds me of is Bruce Sutter—he got guys to swing at it, and everybody’s going ,“Why did you swing at that?” Well, it looks like a strike!

As for the closer’s mentality, think about what Koji said after he got the MVP of the ALCS—he said he wanted to throw up. I thought that was great. Because I could understand: I felt the same way. Not to the level of throwing up, but my stomach turned a little bit every time I had to pitch. That’s what I needed to take out there. I can’t imagine not having that. There’s a fear of not succeeding and ruining it for everybody. There’s a major responsibility there. And once you screw up a few, then you realize how much tougher it is.

But with him, there was absolutely no drama, ever. I’ve never seen anything like it. I think people took it for granted—you never even had a heartbeat when he came in.

—As told to Jason Schwartz