BOSTON — Starting the season with Joel Hanrahan at closer and Andrew Bailey as setup man, the Red Sox’ bullpen looked strong on paper.
If Hanrahan struggled or suffered any injury, then Bailey, a two-time All-Star closer, could step in and replace him without the team missing a beat.
But things didn’t quite work out that way.
Hanrahan blew two saves and posted a 9.82 ERA in 7.1 innings before undergoing Tommy John surgery. Bailey then blew five of 13 save opportunities and posted a 3.77 ERA before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.
The Red Sox appeared in deep, deep trouble.
But then 38-year-old Japanese setup man Koji Uehara — who the Red Sox didn’t want to pitch more than an inning of work per outing at the start of this season due to his age and having only pitched 36.0 total innings last year — stepped into the role and became a true savior for this team.
“Without him, who knows where we’d be?” said Bailey who is working on the range of motion stage during his rehab right now. “I think this year there’s been a constant group effort, but especially in the bullpen, hands down he’s been the most valuable. You look at somebody like that and it’s like without him, honestly, where would we be?”
Uehara recorded his 16th save in Boston’s 7-6 victory over the Chicago White Sox yesterday. He set the White Sox down 1-2-3 to lead Boston to a three-game weekend sweep of Chicago.
Thrust into the closer role June 21, Uehara has since saved 15 of 17 opportunities and essentially saved the season for the Red Sox.
Your 2013 Sox have had numerous star performers. David Ortiz, John Lackey, Daniel Nava, Dustin Pedroia ... the list goes on and on and on.
But above and beyond all else is Uehara. He is this team’s MVP and the biggest reason the Sox are in first in the AL East.
He has a personal major league career-high scoreless streak of 24.0 innings over his past 21 outings beginning July 9. He has allowed just seven runners during this stretch, showing that he is the furthest thing in baseball from a heart attack closer.
He has an eye-popping 1.17 ERA and 0.62 WHIP in 61.1 innings. He has had seven appearances of more than an inning. He has 83 strikeouts to nine walks.
“He’s been dominant all year,” Bailey said of Uehara, whom Boston signed this past offseason. “He’s definitely picked us up and really carried us for some time. If you look at his career numbers, they’re pretty much just as good as what he’s doing now.”
Uehara, who spent some time as a closer in 2010 with Baltimore, has a career 2.51 ERA and 0.86 WHIP. His ability to consistently throw strikes and limit base runners is what has made him so successful since leaving Japan to become a major leaguer with the Orioles in 2009.
“It’s phenomenal and to be so consistent, especially changing some roles, he’s been a lockdown closer and arguably one of the best relievers in baseball,” Bailey said.
Uehara doesn’t have a blazing fastball. Actually, it had averaged at just 89.2 mph this year entering yesterday, according to fangraphs.com.
“He’s got a lot of deception and his splitter is probably one of the best pitches in baseball this year,” Bailey said. “You look at how many swings and misses he gets on fastballs, (it’s because) guys are looking for the splitter in certain counts and he knows what he’s doing.”
Uehara’s two main pitches are the fastball and splitter. He has thrown the fastball 46.6 percent of the time and his split-finger 46.9 percent of the time this summer.
Uehara entered yesterday first among AL relievers in ERA, WHIP, strikeout-to-walk ratio (9.1) and lowest average walks per nine innings (1.4). Of his 61 appearances this year, 54 have been scoreless.
Uehara became a fan favorite in Boston earlier this year with his energy and excitement in the setup role. After pitching a scoreless seventh or eighth inning, he would run straight in the Red Sox dugout and slap every teammates hand with the same excitement a football player has after sacking a quarterback.
His celebrations nowadays take place right after the final out of a game.
While he does use a translator, Uehara knows more English than he can speak, Bailey said.
“He knows some English,” Bailey said. “He’s funny as hell. There’s definitely a little bit of a language barrier but in terms of being a great teammate, he doesn’t let (language) get in the way. He’s hilarious. Everyone loves him. ... He’s kind of carefree and funny.”
Follow Christopher Smith on Twitter @SmittyOnMLB