In the span of two seasons Koji Uehara has gone from being the dog of the World Series to MVP of the American League Championship series. The New York Times is suggesting the transformation may have had something to do with Uehara’s decision to go clean-shaven on a team that has gone caveman.
Uehara’s MVP award was earned during six tense innings as the Red Sox closer in the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers. With cool efficiency he locked up three saves and a win by using his combination of splitters and fastballs to make eight batters mistime their swings while allowing only four hits and no walks. The final 5-2 win over the Tigers was probably the least stressful inning of the series because Uehara had the luxury of working with a 3-run cushion.
But he was feeling the pressure of the occasion nevertheless.
“To tell you the truth, I almost threw up,” he has admitted when asked about his nerves.
The cheers he received while hoisting the MVP trophy in front of a roaring crowd at Fenway after the final ACLS win was a far cry from the tears he was shedding alone in the locker room after his third and worst outing in the 2011 playoffs for the Texas Ranger when he allowed three runs to cap off a miserable season in which his ERA had soared to 33.75.
Back then, in his first season with the Rangers Uehara had been wearing the beard he had grown while playing his single season with the Baltimore Orioles. He still had it when he signed with the Red Sox last December. But in January he shaved it off on a live network TV show in Japan, giving in to the demands of fans who didn’t like it, as well as an inner voice that told him it was time to try a new look and attitude.
“I just didn’t know where I was going with that beard,” Uehara told reporters before the final game of the ALCS. “So I thought it was best to shave it off. It was a good time to do it, and I think many people were happy. They said I looked younger.”
Of course he didn’t know then that his Red Sox teammates would decided to grow beards for the 2013 season. Regardless, the move may have worked some psychological magic. Uehara’s ERA plummeted to a razor sharp 1.09 during the regular season as he notched 21 saves since being promoted to full-time closer on June 26 after Joel Hanrahan was forced into elbow surgery and Andrew Baily injured a shoulder.
He held that average into the playoffs by giving up only a single run in nine innings over eight games. He won two saves in the division series against the Tampa Bay Rays and three in the ALCS. But Uehara is noncommittal as to whether losing the beard made the difference.
For a pitcher who struggled as a starter in both Japan and with his two prior MLB teams during which he had only logged 14 saves, Uehara seems finally to have hit his stride late his career. But one would be hard pressed to argue with his timing.