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MLB.com Columnist

Bernie Pleskoff

Uehara rises to occasion in unique fashion

Uehara rises to occasion in unique fashion

Uehara rises to occasion in unique fashion

ST. LOUIS -- The value of a closer in any baseball game can no longer be debated. In today's brand of "smaller ball" baseball, where the home run is more precious than ever and fundamentals like solid defense, throwing strikes and taking advantage of every scoring opportunity, shutting down the opposition at the end of the game is essential.

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In this World Series, both teams are built with closers capable of slamming the door shut on the opposition in the ninth inning. Depending upon the situation, the Red Sox's Koji Uehara and the Cardinals' Trevor Rosenthal may even appear sooner than the ninth.

The two closers couldn't be more different in their backgrounds, styles and approaches to hitters.

Uehara is unique. At age 38, he pitches as if he were much, much younger. Uehara has an elastic arm. If needed, he could probably pitch much more than an inning or two. Uehara just doesn't tire. He looks fresh from the moment he walks on the mound until his work is done.

Uehara is unique in another way. He doesn't require much time or many pitches to get warm in the bullpen. If the situation of a game changes and he's needed to pitch, Uehara will be ready. He seems to thrive on the moment.

Uehara was a star in Japan when he came to the United States and pitched for the Baltimore Orioles at age 34. He was part of a very important trade. Uehara was sent to Texas for a struggling but promising first baseman named Chris Davis. Pitcher Tommy Hunter was also traded to Baltimore in the deal.

While Uehara pitched well for the Rangers, he was allowed to test free agency. In December 2012, he signed with the Red Sox.

The team had other options at closer, having the experienced Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan on the roster at one time or another. Even Junichi Tazawa and Alfredo Aceves were in the mix at one point to be called upon in the ninth inning.

In June, after serving as the Red Sox's setup man, Uehara inherited the closer's role after injuries and ineffectiveness left him as the best option for the role.

Most "power" pitchers can throw their fastball in the mid to high 90s. Uehara's four-seam fastball sits at 89 mph. It is his two-pitch combination of the fastball and an incredible 82 mph split-finger pitch that make him special.

Some of Uehara's statistics this past season are hard to believe. He has issued nine walks while striking out 101. Right-handed hitters hit .145 against Uehara, lefties hit just .116. He had a 0.56 WHIP and a 1.09 regular-season ERA. Uehara allowed 10 runs in 74 1/3 innings pitched. He yielded only 33 hits.

Uehara doesn't stare down hitters. In fact, he enters the game with a smile on his face. Uehara looks like a man without a care. But he carves up hitters like a seasoned surgeon.

Mariano Rivera had his classical cutter as his "go to" out pitch. He used it almost 90 percent of the time. For Uehara, it's the split-finger fastball that provides domination on the mound. He's using it more and more lately -- probably half the time.

Once Uehara has established the fastball in every quadrant, he is masterful at starting the split-finger at the hitter's waist and having it drop like a weighted body in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Now you see it, now you don't.

The numbers only tell part of the story. First and foremost, Uehara throws strikes. He just doesn't fall behind in many counts. Uehara can make only two pitches work because of his command and control of both.

Nothing seems to rattle Uehara. Maybe it's his maturity. Maybe it's his self confidence. Whatever it is, Uehara doesn't fight himself on the mound or lose composure.

Rivera remains the greatest closer in the game's history. At his age, Uehara is certainly not Rivera. But he's very special. And yes, very unique.

All Uehara does is close out games. With a smile on his face.

Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Follow @BerniePleskoff on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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