BALTIMORE—He is in his 40s and dominating for the Red Sox, a testament to durability that defies what is traditionally thought possible.
His teammates marvel at him, and his coaches believe he could play many more years if he wanted.
David Ortiz? Well, yes. But there is another quadragenarian making an outsize contribution for Boston as it races toward the American League East division title: 41-year old Japanese righthander Koji Uehara.
“Forty is the new 20,” Ortiz said. “That’s what’s up. That’s when we perform at the highest level. Experience plays a big role and Koji knows how to keep hitters off balance so good.”
Uehara continued his success in late-game situations for the Red Sox on Tuesday night, mowing down the most dangerous part of a potent Orioles lineup in the eighth inning to set the stage for Craig Kimbrel to close out a 5-2 win and cut Boston’s magic number for the division title to eight.
Uehara, now in his eighth season after coming over from Japan, has a 3.03 ERA with an 11.5 strikeouts-per-nine innings rate in his age 40 and 41 seasons and is still going strong. His 12.3 SO/9 mark this season is the highest rate of his career, his 1.9 walks-per nine innings rate is an improvement over last season and, even though his ERA is the highest of his career at 3.77, he is still delivering in high-pressure moments as the Red Sox setup man and occasional closer.
In 23 appearances in “high-leverage” situations as defined by Baseball-Reference.com, Uehara is holding batters to a .170/.264/.340 slash line, his best marks in any situation this year.
“I think I keep my body in good shape physically and mentally,” Uehara said through a translator. “Right now I’m just enjoying the fact that I’m able to pitch and contribute to the team.”
Perhaps most impressive is that Uehara is having this level of success after straining a right pectoral muscle that kept him out for nearly two months, normally the type of upper-body injury that older pitchers can struggle to recover from.
Instead, Uehara has come back effective as ever. He has yet to allow a run in seven appearances since his return on Sept. 7 and is averaging more than a strikeout per inning.
Even with diminished stuff—his fastball topped out at 86 mph and his splitter at 78 mph Tuesday—he was still able to retire the Orioles’ dangerous offensive trio of Chris Davis, Manny Machado and Mark Trumbo in order on 12 pitches.
“As much as we talk about David, for a guy of Koji’s age, he amazes you,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “It’s a comfortable inning for all of us when he’s on the mound.”
Uehara originally came to the U.S. as a starter for the Orioles in 2009 after signing a two-year, $10 million deal to become the first Japanese-born player in franchise history. He didn’t rank as one of the Orioles’ Top 30 prospects when he signed in part because of his advanced age at the time (34), but the former Yomiuri Giants ace has performed ever since he arrived, no matter what the age.
As for 40 being the new 20?
“I’m 41,” Uehara said with a chuckle, “so it doesn’t apply to me.”
That however, shouldn’t be taken to mean Uehara is anywhere near close to calling it a career.
“I can pitch many more years after this,” he said.
With the way Uehara is pitching, there is little reason to doubt him.