On May 19th, on the road against the Twins, Sox set-up man Koji Uehara was in the middle of a hellish 8th: a leadoff double to pinch-hitter Wilkin Ramirez, a walk to light-light-hitting shortstop Pedro Florimon, and a single to Jamey Carroll. With two-down and the bases loaded, the Sox up 3-1, Koji faced Joe Mauer, one of the few bright spots on a struggling Twins lineup. Koji reared back: Ball, Foul, Foul, Ball. Then one of the pitches Sox fans have come to love: an 88mph 2-seamer up and away, catching Mauer swinging. Inning over.
What came next is what has made Koji Uehara possibly the most beloved reliever in my memory as a Sox fan. He pounded his fist joyfully into his glove, ran towards catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, patted his chest as if to say “My bad” with a smile on his face. And then he stopped Salty halfway to the dugout and hugged him.
Not a pat on the back. Not a bump on the fist. A hug. Square shoulders, face to face, hug, with a thankful whisper in the ear to boot. Then Koji did what every Sox fan relishes watching: skipping through the crowded dugout, making sure he high-fives every single player there, waiting at the entrance to congratulate the defensive players arriving behind him.
The Major League Baseball reliever is a fickle thing. He is oft-criticized and rarely commended, the equivalent to the goalie in soccer or the kicker in football. You are supposed to be automatic, to finish what the rest of your team has started. When you fail, the fan’s reaction is always disbelief, “This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
All of this is to say is you have to be something of a lunatic to be a major-league reliever, and the Red Sox bullpen of recent years has had their fair share . In one of the most demanding cities to be a sports professional (or so Carl Crawford says), with a rabid fan base and hyper-critical press, the Red Sox are a tough team to fail on, and not every reliever, no matter how sparkly their resume, has been up to the task. Former All-Stars like Eric Gagne (whose name still draws curses from my father) or Bobby Jenks all bottomed out here. Some pitchers had one great season only to completely fall apart the next, like Hideki Okajima or (still hoping not) Daniel Bard. Some were absolutely crazy even when they stopped being productive, like Julian Tavarez or Alfred Aceves. The most successful Red Sox reliever of the last decade was Jonathan Papelbon, he of the John-Lithgow-if-he-was-30-years-younger-and-was-a-serial-killer stare.
Which is why this year’s pen is such a breath of fresh air. Alex Wilson, the congenial 26-year-old rookie, somehow has a 1.46 ERA. Andrew Miller, the 6-7 southpaw, is finally starting to come around, even drawing some praise from John Farrell. Junichi Tazawa, like last year, has been dynamite in the 7th, and will be just as good when he moves back there in the coming weeks. Andrew Bailey is proving this year that the Bailey-Reddick trade wasn’t as much of a disaster as it looked last season, an All-Star closer if he can stay healthy. And there’s more to come: Craig Breslow has just come back from injury, Franklin Morales is rehabbing in the minors, and maybe, just maybe, Daniel Bard can figure it all out and thrive in low-pressure situations to get his confidence back.
And of course there’s Koji. The 38-year-old journeyman that acts after every hold, every perfect inning, like you imagine a rookie feels but is too self-conscious to exhibit. His rituals (the pumping of the fist, the constant high-fiving) are a joy to watch. Of course, all of this would be meaningless if he wasn’t pitching well. The good news is, he is, the most sure thing in a bullpen that’s becoming increasingly reliable. On April 21st, when he gave up his first earned run of the season, a solo shot to Royals’ DH Billy Butler, I was horrified. One female patron of the bar I was watching the game in gasped audibly. “What??” This was Koji, who had been nothing but perfect thus far. Luckily, since then, he’s still been terrific: all told, 17 and 2/3 innings, 14 hits, 4 ER (all homers), 4 walks, AND 26 STRIKEOUTS. To be clear, Koji Uehara is no flamethrower. He rarely crosses the 90mph line. He pounds the strike zone over and over, with a jumpy splitter and what Gerry Fraley of the Dallas News called “a magic fastball”; incredibly deceptive, especially against right-handed hitters. And of course, he’s insanely likable, something you could never really say about the river-dancing madman Papelbon, and certainly could not and will not ever say about Aceves.
But that’s been the best part of the 2013 Boston Red Sox. As even my Yankee fan friends have agreed, this is the most likable Red Sox team since “The Idiots” of 2004. Gone is Bobby Valentine. Gone are apparent cancers Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez. Gone is tragic figure Carl Crawford. The faces of the franchise are rightly David Ortiz, whose f-bomb and bat have electrified a troubled city, and Dustin Pedroia, 3rd in the AL in batting average and still a fantastic glove. Shane Victorino is easily the happiest/smiliest man in all of baseball. The five-spot slugger, Mike Napoli, rubs himself with baby oil to stay warm every game, and has been gifted the name “Hacksaw”. Stephen Drew is doing his best to make us forget he’s related to J.D. Daniel Nava has gone from forgotten fourth outfielder to folk hero. And I don’t care how bad Jonny Gomes’ batting average is (.190 if you’re wondering) I still love how hard he runs, and his thunderous high five with Nava after the “Boston, This Is For You” home run. I mean even John Lackey’s become pretty tolerable!!
So far, though, the iconic image of this season for me as a fan has been Koji Uehara hugging his catcher after getting out of a jam. For a sport dominated by numbers and individual effort, this year’s Red Sox are the closest I’ve ever seen to acting like a team, and that’s pretty wonderful.
Of course, if the Sox fall apart by mid-July, this will seem a lot less adorable. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.