By Christopher Smith
---- — BOSTON — Koji Uehara had two disastrous relief outings against these same Detroit Tigers in the 2011 American League Championship Series when he was pitching for the Texas Rangers.
He surrendered a solo homer in each appearance, which both were shorter than an inning. Both games also ended with the Rangers losing.
Flash forward two years. Things have unfolded in reverse fashion for Uehara, now the Red Sox closer, against these same Detroit Tigers.
Here in the 2013 ALCS, Uehara entered last night’s Game 6 having pitched 5.0 scoreless innings and having allowed just three hits and no walks while striking out seven batters.
The 38-year-old Japanese right-hander, who the Red Sox signed as a middle reliever/setup man this past offseason and who Boston originally had planned never to pitch more than one inning in any outing, recorded a five-out save in Game 5.
He entered last night having pitched more than one inning in three of his four postseason saves.
In other words, he was a playoff flop in ‘11 and has been a playoff MVP this fall.
He arguably was Boston’s MVP during the regular season and nothing has changed this series.
Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland put it best when he said about Uehara before last night’s Game 6, “His significance right now is probably as important as anybody they’ve got on their team.”
Uehara isn’t as nervous as one might be if he had to wait about eight innings for these intense, high-pressure, extremely lengthy playoff games to unfold before being summoned to the mound to determine the outcome.
“It’s not really nervousness it’s just my natural emotion which comes out,” Uehara said through his translator.
Bogartts thinking back
Asked to think back to the first postseason game he ever watched on TV or listened to on the radio as a young boy growing up in Aruba, Red Sox 21-year-old rookie Xander Bogaerts couldn’t quite remember.
But he did mention two of the more interesting games in Red Sox history.
“One that I can remember is the Red Sox and the Yankees when (Aaron) Boone hit that home run,” Bogaerts said.
Can Bogaerts give Boston Red Sox fans anything better than that game?
“The game that Pedro (Martinez) came in to relieve,” Bogaerts said.
Much better, Bogaerts! That was quite a Red Sox classic when Martinez jogged out of the bullpen and to the mound in decisive-Game 5 of the 1999 ALDS against the Cleveland Indians in Cleveland. Martinez went on to earn the victory, hurling 6.0 scoreless and hitless innings.
Nava being slighted?
Right-handed hitting left fielder Jonny Gomes who’s historically better against left-handed pitching, has started four of the six ALCS games against a Detroit Tigers team that has an all right-handed starting staff.
Meanwhile, fellow left fielder Daniel Nava, arguably a much better hitter, has started just two of the six games despite how his .322 average vs. right-handed pitchers was seventh in the AL this regular season.
What the heck is Red Sox manager John Farrell thinking?
“I think at this point in time gut feel comes into it a little bit more than numbers will tell you on a stat sheet or a given category,” Farrell said before yesterday’s game. “So the way players respond under these circumstances in this environment has got equal weight, if not more, than maybe what the numbers might indicate or drive you to make a decision over the course of a regular season game or over 162.
“This is a different environment,” Farrell added. “And I think that’s why we’ve got to remain in tune with how guys are responding in those key moments, pressure‑packed moments.”
Gomes entered Game 6 batting .190 with a .261 on-base percentage, .238 slugging percentage and .499 OPS in nine postseason games this year.
Nava entered Game 6 batting .273 with a .429 on-base percentage, .273 slugging percentage and .701OPS in nine postseason games.
Pen has become strength
The Boston bullpen allowed just one run in 17.0 innings (0.53 ERA) over the first five games of the ALCS. Boston’s 0.96 bullpen ERA (just three earned runs) this postseason entering last night, led the eight teams that reached the division series.
What appeared to be the only weak link for Boston entering this postseason has turned into a strength.
Before getting to closer Koji Uehara, Sox manager John Farrell has done a fine job using setup men Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow with a lead and using the other relievers when the Red Sox are trailing.
Sometimes it’s Breslow before Tazawa. Sometimes, it’s Tazawa before Breslow. Either way, it has worked and everyone is relaxed.
That’s a credit to Farrell and his coaching staff.
Lesson in velocity
The Red Sox have used setup man Junichi Tazawa against Miguel Cabrera in the late innings this series.
Farrell said, “When we’ve been hurt by Cabrera, it’s probably been some off‑speed pitches that haven’t gotten to the spot. You’re almost looking for ways to minimize the damage against such a great hitter as him. And typically that could be a well‑located fastball.”
Tazawa (93.5 mph average fastball this year, according to fangraphs) brings much better velocity than Breslow, whose fastball averaged 89.9 mph.
Tazawa has pitched much better this postseason (1 ER, 4.2 IP) than he did during September (6.48 ERA).
David Ortiz entered yesterday’s Game 6 with just two ALCS hit, although one was huge. It was the grand slam homer in Game 2, which evened the series with Detroit 1-1.
“He’s certainly been pitched to very effectively,” Farrell said about Ortiz. “Guys haven’t given in to him. They’ve worked him backwards in some fastball counts. Look at what (Doug) Fister did to him a couple of at‑bats, throw a baseball up and in on him with a 2‑2 count and then a good pitch with a breaking ball.
“He poses that threat every time he steps in the box,” Farrell added. “He recognizes that a lot of teams will pitch him carefully. ... David is typically not a guy that gets frustrated with the attack plan of the opposition. To their credit, they haven’t thrown many pitches on the plate. When they did in a bases loaded situation, we know what he can do.”
Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera won the American League MVP last year when batting for the Triple Crown.
And he hasn’t had a terrible ALCS. He entered yesterday batting .278 with a .350 on-base percentage, .444 slugging percentage, .794 OPS, one homer and four RBIs.
Yes, the Red Sox have pitched him well and have had a strong plan for him, but Cabrera is playing through some injuries and that should make you wonder what the slugger’s numbers would look like right now if he actually was 100 percent.
“It kind of breaks your heart, to be honest with you — to see him out there the way he has to be out there and the way he is right now because you know he’s hurting,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “He’s tough as nails. I have so much respect for him.
It’s really a shame, to be honest with you, for the whole baseball world because they’re not getting a chance to see him at his best,” Leyland said. “This time of year, people are turning on the TV. They love to see these guys. Obviously I think he’s the best player in the league. To not be able to see him at his best because of a physical ailment, it hurts a little bit. But that’s just the way it is, and you live with those things.”
Follow Christopher Smith on Twitter @SmittyOnMLB