Before he pitched a hidden perfect game, he was the hidden closer

Winslow Townson

You probably saw the news the other day about Koji Uehara. If not, here is CBSSports.com's Mike Axisa:

Twenty-seven up, 27 down. That's what Red Sox closer Koji Uehara has done over his last nine appearances. The right-hander has thrown a "hidden" perfect game for Boston, retiring each of the last 27 batters he's faced.

--snip--

A "hidden" perfect game is simply a stretch of 27 consecutive outs regardless of whether they are spread out across multiple appearances. Cardinals right-hander Shelby Miller threw one on May 10 against the Rockies, when he allowed a single to the first batter of the game before retiring the next 27 straight for the complete-game win.

Gosh, I'd already forgotten about Shelby Miller. Meanwhile, I'll never forget Kevin Appier throwing a "hidden" no-hitter against the Tigers in 1990. Memory's funny that way. Passion, too. Anyway, I'm sure there have been a fair number of hidden no-hitters over the years, and probably perfect games, too.

Yes, 27 straight is impressive. It's not even close to the record, though. Bizarrely enough, the record is held by Mark Buehrle, who threw an actual perfect game and sandwiched that with one out in his previous start and 17 straight outs in his next start, for a total of 45 straight hitters retired.

The record for a relief pitcher is 41 straight, set by Bobby Jenks in 2007. That's why I think a lot of relievers have thrown hidden perfect games; if Jenks reached 41, you have to figure a bunch of guys have been in the 30s, right?

It's funny, the most famous "hidden" perfect game for a while wasn't "hidden" at all ... because Major League Baseball accepted Ernie Shore's 27-up, 27-down performance as an actual perfect game, even though it was a relief job. Famously, Babe Ruth started the game, walked the first batter he faced, and got ejected after punching the umpire. Shore came in, picked off the runner, and retired the next 26 straight. Bizarrely, he was credited with a perfect game until 1991, when a committee took away Shore's gem -- along with many others -- leaving him instead with partial credit for a combined no-hitter.

Getting back to Uehara, though ... Have you wondered why it took him so long to get a chance at being a big star? The answer to your question is hinted at here by ESPN.com's Eric Karabell:

I argue this pretty much every time analysts, some of whom played in the majors, question whether a terrific setup reliever like Uehara can handle closing better than say, Kevin Gregg: Just look at Uehara's statistics. See anything wrong there? Uehara struck out two of the Yankees he faced Thursday and now boasts a ridiculous 0.27 ERA as the team's closer, and a 1.14 ERA and 0.60 WHIP overall, with a monster strikeout rate. And all this at 38 years old. He's owned in all leagues, but it's fair to ask whether he's a top-five fantasy closing option for 2014.

When Uehara first arrived in our majors, he started games. Which made sense because he'd thrived as a starter in Japan. In his second season, though, he became exclusively a relief pitcher. In the (nearly) four seasons since making the switch Uehara's got a 1.98 ERA. Perhaps most impressive at all, here are the top five pitchers in strikeout-to-walk ratio in those seasons, minimum 150 innings:

10.5 Uehara
6.9 Sergio Romo
6.8 Cliff Lee
6.4 Edward Mujica
6.3 Rafael Betancourt

In fact, Uehara's career strikeout-to-walk ratio -- 8.4, including his dozen starts as a rookie in 2009 -- is by far the highest in major-league history for a pitcher with at least 150 innings. Romo's No. 2 on the list, at nearly six strikeouts for every walk. No, I'm not ready to anoint Uehara the greatest control pitcher of all time or anything; after all, we're talking about just 276 innings. But there simply isn't any good reason to think that a pitcher with Uehara's control of the strike zone can't thrive in the ninth inning just as well as he thrived in the seven and eighth innings.

And yet, until the Red Sox ran through two or three other options earlier this season, Uehara had been a closer for exactly 10 weeks in his major-league career. Because ... well, I don't know the because. But I just read something that Dennis Eckersley said, and now I like Dennis Eckersley:

"I don’t want to take away anything from what I did," Dennis Eckersley, a Hall of Fame closer, said Thursday before the game. "But it’s not as tough as you think."

--snip--

What happened to the supposedly rare mind-set those pitchers had, that vaguely superhuman ability to handle the ninth inning? It sure seems like lots of others can perform just fine. To suggest that a setup man cannot deal with pressure is silly.

"You can find somebody to do it," Eckersley said. "You could groom somebody to do it who’s on the staff, if you manage it the right way. I mean, think about it: the tougher job is to come in with guys on base, because he’s got to be quicker to the plate and he has to hold runners on."

source: Tyler Kepner in The New York Times

I don't like Eckersley because I agree with him. I agree with a lot of people. I like Eckersley because he's actually downplaying his own performance, even if only a little. And I find this wonderfully refreshing.

But of course I do agree with him. There are dozens and dozens of examples of pitchers who didn't get a chance to close because ... well, because they weren't closers. Until finally they did get a chance, and most of them performed just as they'd performed before. What's so odd about Uehara isn't that he's been brilliant since taking over as Red Sox closer. What's odd is that he's been even more brilliant.

A top-five closer in 2014, when he's 39? But of course.

For much more about the Red Sox and their third-string closer, please visit SB Nation's Over the Monster.

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