Heading into the 2013 season, it would have been easy to identify the possible October successors to Mariano Rivera's throne of dominance. From Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel to Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman, the young hard-throwers around baseball were in abundance.
Seven months later, it's a 38-year-old Japanese reliever, not good enough (via D.J. Short of NBC Sports) for the 2011 Rangers playoff roster, who's changing the postseason more than any arm since Mariano Rivera.
That's right, folks. Koji Uehara is the Red Sox's version of Mariano Rivera.
From 1996-2001, during the heyday of the New York Yankees dynasty, the greatest postseason weapon in baseball history sat in the bullpen for most of October, yet hovered over every move of every game.
Rivera's mere presence changed the way the postseason was played for years. Games were no longer nine innings long when Rivera reigned supreme. If the Yankees were winning when his name was called, the game was already over.
Twelve years after Rivera's cutter bore in on the hands of Arizona's Luis Gonzalez, flared into center field for a bloop single and ended the Yankees dynasty, baseball has found a new version of that dominance from the closer position.
By capping off a 3-1 victory in Game 5 for the Red Sox, Uehara earned his fourth four-plus out save of the postseason. As MLB Network Researcher Moses Massena astutely pointed out on Twitter, only Goose Gossage (six in 1981) and Mariano Rivera (five in three different October runs) have bested Uehara's October numbers.
With two games left, and only one now needed to ensure a World Series parade in Boston, the Red Sox will have the opportunity to put the ball in Uehara's right arm during the biggest and most crucial moments.
Baseball fans have seen dominant closers emerge over the years. From Brad Lidge's perfect 2008 season to Brian Wilson's weird time in the spotlight to Jason Motte and Sergio Romo eschewing the need for experience in star closers, October is built for new, exciting stoppers.
Yet, it's Uehara's ability to give Boston more than three outs per outing that separates him from every other non-Rivera closer we've seen over the last decade in the postseason. Instead of just being a closer, Uehara is now a weapon. Red Sox manager John Farrell can deploy set-up relievers, use a starter longer or shorter than expected and navigate through middle innings with the luxury of knowing that sure outs are there in the eighth inning if he needs them.
For years, it felt like the late-'90s Yankees had a psychological advantage over their opponents when the game bled into the middle innings. Baseball, among its many unique quirks, doesn't have a game clock like other sports—yet Rivera's presence put an internal clock in the collective mind of New York's opponent. If a lead wasn't achieved early, Rivera was lurking, ready to slam the door without giving a sliver of hope.
In 2013, that's become Uehara's role for this Red Sox team. When his right arm is summoned from the Boston bullpen, there's no hope for opponents.
After his Game 5 save, Uehara is now sporting the following postseason pitching line: 12.2 IP, 7 H, 1 ER, 15 K, 7 saves and a win. Those numbers, when compared with Mariano Rivera's 1998-2001 postseason totals, are eerily similar across the board. As the following chart illustrates, Uehara's impression of vintage Rivera isn't just rooted in narrative.
|October Dominance: Rivera vs. Uehara|
Of course, in order to complete the comparison, Uehara must finish the task and close out a World Series championship for the Red Sox. Due to his advanced age and long career in Japan before his MLB debut in 2009, few can expect this dominance to continue for years. The Red Sox closer of the future likely won't be their closer of the future.
A Uehara-Rivera comparison isn't meant to judge a career, long-term outlook or place in the history of the game. Instead, it's presented as an eye-opening look at the relief pitcher who has come out of nowhere to take Rivera's place as the man you would most want on the mound with everything on the line.
Considering that relievers like Jonathan Broxton, Sean Burnett and Tom Gorzelanny out-earned Uehara in free agency last winter, the results are as shocking as the claim.
If Boston can grab an early lead in Game 6, an internal clock, on the game and season, will set in upon the St. Louis dugout. Every out leads the opposition that much closer to another showdown with a pitcher they simply can't touch: Boston's version of Mariano Rivera.