October 20, 2013

KEVIN THOMAS ON BASEBALL: Views from the press box

Scenes and observations of a team bound for the World Series.

Koji Uehara hadn’t seemed his exuberant self the last couple days. The Boston Red Sox have leaned more and more on the slender, 38-year-old relief pitcher.

“I am tired right now,” Uehara said through an interpreter in his last interview Saturday night. He could take his MVP trophy from the American League Championship Series home and begin to rest up for the World Series, which starts Wednesday.

Just how much of a surprise is Uehara this year?

Look at the Boston Red Sox media guide cover, published during spring training.
Eleven players are showcased on the cover: six returning players and five new players expected to make an impact.

The five: Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, Mike Napoli and Joel Hanrahan.

No Koji.

Of course, it was Hanrahan who was supposed to be the Red Sox closer. When he underwent season-ending surgery, then Andrew Bailey was supposed to step in. Another surgery, another closer gone.

Enter Uehara who has performed brilliantly with lock-down efficiency.

“They caught lightning in a bottle,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “He’s been absolutely terrific, there’s no question about that … probably as important as anybody they’ve got on the team.”

Maybe he makes the cover next year?

Uehara, ever the humble man, spoke of his reasons for coming to Boston.

“It was more of how the team wanted me,” he said, “their passion to acquire me and their sincerity. I felt honored to play for this team.”

Ben Cherington is the one who recruited Uehara, as well as several other key components.
His first big acquisition occurred a year ago today - the signing of manager John Farrell.

Farrell took the helm and steered this team as well as anyone could.

When Farrell returned to the clubhouse after his post-game interview Saturday, he found Cherington waiting in the manager’s office, ready with a congratulatory hug.

Jose Iglesias was involved in Cherington’s biggest trade, when Boston sent the gifted shortstop to Detroit in a three-team deal, to acquire pitcher Jake Peavy.

Iglesias played well in this series. But he made a key error in Boston’s huge seventh inning.
Jacoby Ellsbury came to bat with one out and runners on first and second. Ellsbury hit a grounder up the middle, and Iglesias got in front of it. He would have to hurry for a double play — with Ellsbury running.

But Iglesias hurried too much, and did not field the grounder cleanly. Instead of Detroit getting out of the inning, Boston loaded the bases. Shane Victorino followed with the grand slam.

“I think he could have (had the double play),” Leyland said. “even with Ellsbury running. It was hit pretty hard. But that’s part of the game.”

Franklin Morales was not among the relievers Farrell praised after the game. And had the Red Sox lost Saturday, Farrell’s use of Morales would have been second-guessed.

Starter Clay Buchholz needed to come out. That was obvious. With runners on first and second, left-handed Prince Fielder was coming to bat.

Farrell has three left-handers in the bullpen: reliable Craig Breslow; converted starter Felix Doubront, whose discomfort as a reliever can be evident in his lack of command; and Morales, whose one previous playoff appearance in St. Petersburg began with a walk and a single.

On Saturday, Morales again gave up a walk (loading the bases) and a single (scoring two runs).
Morales is a risk in high-pressure situations. It will be curious how he is used in the Series.

Shane Victorino slumped in this ALCS. Even with his grand slam, he batted .125.
Were you giving up on him?

“Hey, it’s not the first time my back was against the wall or people doubted me,” Victorino said. “I’ve always been that kind of guy. It’s been my drive.

“People said you’re a little too small. In high school, a scout told my mom, ‘he’ll never be a major league player.’
“It’s stuff that motivates me.”

The big hit gave Boston this series win.

David Ortiz tied Game 2 with an eighth-inning grand slam on a hanging change-up. (Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s single in the ninth won it).

Napoli’s home run on a misplaced fastball gave Boston a 1-0 win in Game 3.

Then Victorino’s blast on a curveball over the middle of the plate clinched it.

“The difference really, when you look at the series, is they hit a couple of big bombs and we just didn’t quite do that,” Leyland said. “Three really timely home runs.”

And the final word comes from Victorino: “I knew all along this was going to be a special team.”

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