By Christopher Smith
---- — BOSTON — Koji Uehara put together a Mariano Rivera-like regular season.
The 38-year-old Japanese right-hander was a dominant closer with a 1.09 ERA in 74.1 innings.
Uehara hasn’t surprised old teammate, Baltimore closer Jim Johnson, who led the American League in saves the last two years.
Johnson was with Uehara in Baltimore when Uehara left Japan in 2009.
“He’s always had good stuff,” Johnson said. “They (the Orioles) tried to make him a starter here. And it was a matter of just health and stuff. I think a lot of that was an adjustment period for him — just getting used to how the workload is here. And then he pitched very effectively for us.
“He’s a great pitcher. He closed a little bit for us (in 2010). He was just as good then. When he’s healthy, he’s one of the better pitchers in the game. Obviously, his numbers back it up.”
Can he put together a Mariano Rivera-like postseason?
The Red Sox play Game 1 of their American League Division Series tomorrow at 3:07 p.m. at Fenway Park.
Rivera was not only the best closer in major league history but also the best postseason closer ever with a 0.70 ERA and 0.76 WHIP. He also responded when asked to record saves of more than three outs. Rivera hurled 141.0 innings in 96 postseason appearances. That’s an average of a little more than four outs per game.
Uehara’s success is vital for Boston’s postseason survival. A fascinating 2006 study by sabermetricians Nate Silver, the legendary statistician, and Dayn Perry identified closer performance, pitcher strikeout rate and defense as the top three variables for postseason success.
The Red Sox have a good defense, committing the fifth fewest errors in the AL. They have several strikeout pitchers, recording franchise records in strikeouts (1,294) and strikes per nine innings (8.0).
And right now, the Sox have arguably the game’s best closer in Uehara.
The 38-year-old has little postseason experience (2.1 innings) and no postseason success (five earned runs).
That sample size obviously is way too small to make any sort of judgment.
It’s imperative he continues his dominance because he might be the most important variable for the Red Sox, who have had shaky late-inning relief this season.
With his tremendous strike-throwing ability (only nine walks this year) and a swing-and-miss fastball and splitter, the Red Sox should have him go more than an inning when the need arises.
Taking into account Silver and Perry’s study, it’s not surprising the Yankees won five World Series titles with Rivera as closer. Rivera not only put in the overtime but he was fantastic at limiting base runners.
Now it’s Uehara’s turn.
“He’s always had a sense of humor, which helps in this game,” Johnson said. “He’s a good teammate. I think people here see a little bit more of his energy for the game. I think that’s starting to come out a little bit with him.”
Uehara’s numbers are similar to his first four years in the big leagues. He has a career 1.93 ERA, 0.70 WHIP and .165 batting average against in relief while striking out 11.7 batters per nine innings.
This season it’s a 1.09 ERA, 0.57 WHIP, .130 average and 12.2 strikeouts.
Most incredible about Uehara’s dominance is that he does it with a fastball that has averaged just 89.2 mph this year, according to fangraphs.com.
Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson said Uehara’s fastball is difficult to pick up because it comes out of the same slot as the splitter and Uehara uses the same arm speed when throwing both pitches.
Granderson also said Uehara is pretty much the same pitcher now as when he came to the majors in ’09.
“His velocity hasn’t changed on either one of the two pitches,” Granderson said. “It’s just a matter of putting him in more situations when the game is on the line.”
Follow Christopher Smith on Twitter @SmittyonMLB