Baseball is probably the most popular sport in Japan. The Japanese people anticipate the beginning of every baseball season almost like waiting for a newborn child. Almost every Japanese has his or her own team that they support, usually their hometown’s team. With such popularity, it comes as no wonder that many young Japanese aspire to become just like their idols.
Probably one of the most famous Japanese baseball players in the world would be none other than Koji Uehara. Born on the 3rd of April in the year 1975, he works as a professional baseball player. He has played for a number of teams throughout his career, namely, the Yomiuri Giants, the Baltimore Orioles, the Boston Red Sox, the Texas Rangers, and the Chicago Cubs.
Yomiuri Giants: Where His Career Began to Flourish
Uehara is an alumnus of the Osaka University of Health and Sports Sciences. He was offered a contract with the then-Anaheim Angels backs in the year 1998 that was worth $3 million. However, he declined the offer and, instead, signed a contract with Yomiuri. Despite his refusal to join the Angels, Uehara still maintained the interest of the scouting director of the Angels at the time known as Eddie Bane. In fact, Bane mentioned that getting Uehara or another player by the name of Daisuke Matsuzaka was considered a priority for the Angels.
There were also several other teams who saw the great potential of Uehara as a baseball player. Some of these teams include the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Orioles, the Dodgers, and the Mets. They wanted to bid for Uehara when the time came that he became available. With the first pick, Yomiuri Giants drafted Uehara in the year 1998.
Uehara was able to make his rookie year successful. By the year 1999, he was able to break the all-time rookie record with 15 consecutive wins. He won the Rookie of the Year award as well as the Eiji Sawamura Award. He was also leading in terms of wins, strikeouts, ERA, and winning percentage. Finishing with an ERA of 4.02, his career rose to its peak in the year 2001.
Just a year after, Uehara rebounded. He led the Central League in wins in the year 2002 and ultimately won another Sawamura Award. Following this season, Uehara became a representative of Japan in the Major League Baseball Japan All-Star Series. Within the same year, Uehara also became the first pitcher to strike out Barry Bonds continuously for three times in a single game in more than a year. Because of this, his name reached the American Major League Baseball.
Prior to the beginning of the baseball season in the year 2007, Uehara was injured. Hence, he had to make a late appearance in the games and eventually became a closer. Nonetheless, he had an ERA of 1.74 with 32 saves, 4 wins, and 3 losses. This proved that Uehara had the skills for both starting and closing. Nonetheless, he played as a starting pitcher in the following season in the year 2008. After which, he left the Yomiuri Giants to become a free agent, which let him play in Major League Baseball.
Around the world, Uehara is famous for his performances in global competitions. Even when he was still in college, Uehara was already able to participate in international events. He was even able to play in the Olympic Games for two times. His participation was also seen in the first World Baseball Classic as well as in the Asian Baseball Championships.
He was offered to join Team Japan in the year 2006 to play for the World Baseball Classic. He was able to score 2 wins, which solidified his unbeaten record in global competitions. The team was able to beat Cuba and win the championship. With 16 strikeouts, Koji Uehara was able to lead the tournament in victory. In the Asian Baseball Championships in the year 2007, Uehara played as a closer in two games and eventually won his first international save while playing against Korea.
It was also known that Uehara preferred to play in a Major League Baseball team via the posting system. However, the Yomiuri Giants rebuffed this notion. It was in the year 2007 that people expected him to be eligible for free agency. However, as he was injured at the time, his eligibility was postponed to the year 2008.
His and His Wife’s Time with Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers
After playing for the Yomiuri Giants for a long time, Uehara finally signed a contract with another team. He was offered a two-year contract with the Baltimore Orioles on the 13th of January in the year 2009. The deal was worth $10 million. At the beginning of the 2009 season, he played as the number two started just behind Jeremy Guthrie.
Uehara’s big league debut occurred on the 8th of April that season when he played against the New York Yankees. After going five innings and permitting one run, one can say that he truly earned the win in that game. Uehara’s second outing was against the Texas Rangers where he also emerged victoriously.
After getting that deal with the Baltimore Orioles, Uehara and his wife Miho moved to Baltimore with their son Kazuma. Even after the end of his deal with the Baltimore Orioles, his family remained in Baltimore. Hence, even though Uehara was staying in some other state due to the games, his wife and son stayed in Baltimore.
An announcement was made on the 10th of September in the year 2009 stating that Uehara would not be playing for the remaining games until the end of the season due to his injury. He finished his play with a 2-4 record, an ERA of 4.05, and 48 strikeouts in 66 2/3 innings. At the beginning of the 2010 season, Uehara played as a setup reliever in the bullpen. The season 1-2 concluded with Uehara having an ERA of 2.86, 13 saves, and 55 strikeouts in 44 innings.
After his two-year contract with the Baltimore Orioles, Uehara proceeded to be exchanged with the Texas Ranges on the 30th of July in the year 2011. He was traded for Tommy Hunter and Chris Davis. Through his transfer, Uehara was able to reunite with Yoshinori Tateyama, an old teammate from high school. While he had strong numbers when he was still playing with the Orioles, the opposite can be said about his performance with the Rangers.
In fact, many found his performance to have declined after the season when Uehara gave up 3 home runs in 1 1/3 innings. After this, due to his ineffectiveness in the field, he was removed from the roster for the World Series. Even after Uehara’s option vested, he decided to continue staying with the Rangers in the year 2012.
Thankfully, he was able to make a successful rebound campaign by maintaining his ERA at 1.75. Still, he was not able to play at all games. With a limit of 37 games, he was able to pitch 36 innings and achieve 43 strikeouts. He also spent a certain amount of time on the disabled list because of his strained lateral muscle.
Contracts with Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs
Following his stint with the Orioles and Rangers, Uehara decided to sign a one-year contract with the Boston Red Sox on the 6th of December in the year 2012. Through this contract, Uehara was able to change his role from being a setup man to being a closer. This was due to the injuries that were attained by both Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey.
Uehara made a huge comeback during the 2013 season. His performance during this season was considered by many to be the most dominant one by a relief pitcher to ever be made in the history of baseball. He set the record for a pitcher by getting a WHIP of 0.57 in 74.1 innings. He was also able to surpass the former franchise record of 32 when he retired 37 consecutive batters from the 9th of July to the 17th of September. He almost reached the MLB record of Bobby Jenks of 41 for continuous outs by a reliever.
He ended the season with flying colors. He finished with an ERA of 1.09, an xFIP of 2.08, and a 38.1 percent success on strikeouts. As a result, many commended his performance during this season. He was even ranked as the top reliever of the season in Wins Above Replacement by Fangraphs, an online baseball website.
He also played as a pitcher in the 2013 ALCS for five games. Later on, he was awarded as the ALCS Most Valuable Player. He was able to pitch 5.1 innings with an allowance of 4 hits and no walks in this series. Furthermore, he was also able to accumulate 9 strikeouts. Through his save in Game 6, he helped the Red Sox win the team’s 13th AL pennant.
Uehara also participated in the World Series. One of their memorable games was against the St. Louis Cardinals. Uehara was the one who threw the pitch that clinched the team’s place as the victors of the game. It was this pitch that closed out their 6-1 win against the Cardinals in Game 6. The game was held at Fenway Park, Boston.
The famous player began his first career in All Star Game on the 9th of July in the year 2014. He served as the replacement of Masahiro Tanaka, a pitcher from New York Yankees who was suffering from an injury. Despite Uehara’s winning streak so far, his performance again declined close to the end of the 2014 regular season. Ultimately, he was taken off the closer role on the 5th of September.
Nonetheless, he was offered a two-year extension with the Red Sox on the 30th of October in the year 2014. This was following his regular season finish of a 6-5 record, an ERA of 2.52, 26 saves in 31 opportunities, and strikeouts amounting to 80 in 64 1/3 innings. At the time, the Red Sox were not able to defend its title with an unimpressive record of 71-91.
Uehara was able to go back to his closer role in the 2015 season. However, he suffered an injury on the 7th of August when his right wrist was struck by a batted ball. As a result, he had to prematurely finish his campaign for the season. He ended with a record of 2-4, an ERA of 2.23, 25 saves in 27 opportunities, and strikeouts amounting to 47 in 40 1/3 innings.
After his contract with the Red Sox ended, Uehara signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Cubs on the 14th of December in the year 2016. The contract was worth $6 million. For the first time in Uehara’s career, he walked a batter with all the bases loaded on the 21st of June in the year 2017. Following his deal with the Chicago Cubs, Uehara returned to where his career first started off, the Yomiuri Giants. He signed a one-year contract with them on the 9th of March in the year 2018.
News of His Retirement in 2018 and His Stats So Far
Uehara has had his own ups and downs throughout his career. After having experienced several wins and losses through the years, it is said that he is ready to hang up his cleats soon. He aims to play for one more season in the majors before retiring. Even after retirement, he does not plan on returning to Japan for good although the idea is not entirely out of the picture.
For now, he is focused on playing for just another year before retirement. However, he states that he may be open to playing for one more after this season if he is still able to put up good numbers and perform well in the field. He is also thinking about setting a “good clean place to cut it off.”
His stats through the years playing with various teams can be found on several baseball websites. Through these stats, one can see how well he performed throughout his career. Should Uehara truly say goodbye to the sport, one can say that he had built a great baseball career that the Japanese people are surely proud of today.