BOSTON – When the Boston Red Sox needed to close out the World Series, they turned to Koji Uehara.
The 38-year-old right-hander pitched a perfect ninth inning to finish off a 6-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 6 on Wednesday night and secure Boston’s third championship in 10 years.
After earning the Most Valuable Player award in the AL Championship Series against the Tigers with three saves and a victory, Uehara was just as good in the World Series. He gave up zero runs and two hits in 4⅔ innings in five appearances, but he was upstaged by slugger David Ortiz and his .688 batting average for the Series MVP.
“There is no greater happiness,” said Uehara, who overcame one poor outing when he was on the mound when the Cardinals scored the winning run in Game 3 but finished with two saves in four games.
“The only thing that mattered was winning, so I went to the mound thinking I could (afford to give up) one or two runs.”
A year ago, Uehara was released by the Texas Rangers following a poor stretch, and signed with the Sox, who expected him to be a middle reliever. Instead, he had a superlative season, saving 21 games in half a season as the team’s closer and striking out 101 batters in 74⅓ innings, while walking nine.
“I was performing so far over my head this season that it was scary,” he said. “But it’s finally over and I’m really eager to take a break.”
Japanese Hall of Famer Shigeo Nagashima, who managed Uehara when he became the ace pitcher of the Yomiuri Giants, praised his former star.
“Throughout the grueling postseason, he took the mound with never a sign of losing heart,” Nagashima said. “He was as defiant as a weed and flourished.
“His pitching style has changed since his days with the Giants, but the unsurpassed mental strength he showed when we battled together has not changed at all.”
Tazawa, the first marquee amateur to snub Nippon Professional Baseball and sign with a big league club, was also the only player last autumn with a major league contract who was not asked to play for Japan in this year’s World Baseball Classic.
He pitched in 71 games this season for the Sox, and pitched in four Series games. Like Uehara, he allowed a costly hit in Game 3, but bounced back.
“I’m thankful to the manager for using me this season,” said Tazawa, who relieved starter John Lackey with two on and two out in the seventh inning of a five-run game on Wednesday. “Frankly, I don’t recall being nervous (tonight), but I’m glad I could stop them. I just trusted in my catcher and threw the pitches he called for.”
Shane Victorino, symbolic of these resilient Sox, returned from a stiff back and got Boston rolling with a three-run double off the Green Monster against rookie sensation Michael Wacha.
John Lackey became the first pitcher to start and win a Series clincher for two different teams, allowing one run over 6⅔ innings 11 years after his Game 7 victory as an Angels rookie in 2002.
With fans roaring on every pitch and cameras flashing, Uehara struck out Matt Carpenter for the final out. The Japanese pitcher jumped into the arms of catcher David Ross while Red Sox players rushed from the dugout and bullpen as the Boston theme “Dirty Water” played on the public-address system.
“We have a lot of players with heart. We probably don’t have the talent that we had in ’07 and ’04, but we have guys that are capable (of staying) focused and do the little things,” Ortiz said.
There wasn’t the “Cowboy Up!” comeback charm of “The Idiots” from 2004, who swept St. Louis to end an 86-year title drought. There wasn’t that cool efficiency of the 2007 team that swept Colorado.
This time, they were Boston Strong — playing for and trying to comfort a city shaken by the marathon tragedy.
“We’ve dealt with a lot,” Dustin Pedroia said. “But our team came together.”
After late-season slumps in 2010 and 2011, the embarrassing revelations of a chicken-and-beer clubhouse culture that contributed to the ouster of manager Terry Francona, and the daily tumult of Bobby Valentine’s one-year flop, these Red Sox grew on fans.
Just like the long whiskers on the players’ faces, starting with Gomes’ scruffy spring training beard.
“As soon as we went to Fort Myers, the movie’s already been written,” Gomes said. “All we had to do was press play, and this is what happened.”
Ortiz, the only player remaining from the 2004 champs, had himself a Ruthian World Series. He batted .688 (11-for-16) with two homers, six RBIs and eight walks — including four in the finale — for a .760 on-base percentage in 25 plate appearances.
Even slumping Stephen Drew delivered a big hit in Game 6, sending Wacha’s first pitch of the fourth into the right-center bullpen.
By the time the inning was over, RBI singles by Mike Napoli and Victorino had made it 6-0, and the Red Sox were on their way.
“Hey, I missed two games. It’s time to shine,” Victorino said.
All over New England, from Connecticut’s Housatonic River up to the Aroostook in Maine, Boston’s eighth championship can be remembered for the beard-yanking bonding.
Fans bid up the average ticket price to over $1,000 on the resale market and some prime locations went for more than $10,000 each. Nearly all the Red Sox rooters stood in place for 30 minutes after the final out to view the presentation of the trophy and MVP award.
“It was an awesome atmosphere here tonight,” Lackey said.
The win capped an emotional season for the Red Sox, one heavy with the memory of the events that unfolded on Patriots Day, when three people were killed and more than 260 wounded in bombing attacks at the Boston Marathon. The Red Sox wore “Boston Strong” logos on their left sleeves, erected a large emblem on the Green Monster and moved the logo into the center-field grass as a constant reminder.
“There’s I think a civil responsibility that we have wearing this uniform, particularly here in Boston,” Farrell said. “And it became a connection initially, the way our guys reached out to individuals or to hospital visits. And it continued to build throughout the course of the season. I think our fans, they got to a point where they appreciated the way we played the game, how they cared for one another. And in return they gave these guys an incredible amount of energy to thrive on in this ballpark.”
Red, white and blue fireworks fired over the ballpark as Commissioner Bud Selig presented the World Series trophy to Red Sox owners John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino, leaving a haze over the field.
“When the fireworks went off at the presentation of the trophy out there, when the ballpark was filled with smoke, it was completely surreal,” Farrell said. “To be in this position, given where we’ve come from, reflecting back a year ago at this time, there’s been a lot that’s happened in 13 months.”
Players then put on goggles for the champagne celebration in the cramped clubhouse.
“They just found ways to win,” Henry said. “At some point you have to think there’s something special happening here.”