Koji Uehara returned to Japan in a flurry of energy, splitters and high-fives.
If anyone was expecting the 42-year-old pitcher to dial anything back — no chance. Not on the mound, and not when it comes to dishing out vicious acts of celebration, as a few Yomiuri Giants players found out after Uehara left the mound.
“That’s my style, I can’t change it,” Uehara said after making his season debut with Yomiuri in an 8-4 win over the Hanshin Tigers on Saturday afternoon. “But I don’t want to hurt anybody with my high-fives,” he joked.
The fans at Tokyo Dome roared when Uehara took the mound in the eighth inning and took the volume to another level when the veteran right-hander struck out Yusuke Oyama with a splitter. They were somehow even louder after the game, when Uehara emerged from the dugout to join Seiji Kobayashi, Hirokazu Sawamura and Kazuma Okamoto as the “surprise” fourth hero of the game.
“Long time no see,” Uehara quipped as he basked in the hero’s welcome.
Giants fans hadn’t seen Uehara on the mound at Tokyo Dome in a Giants uniform, during the regular season at least, since 2008. He left for the major leagues the following year and spent nine seasons there, winning the 2013 American League Championship Series MVP Award and also helping the Boston Red Sox win the World Series that year.
He signed with Yomiuri, the club he made his pro debut with in 1999, in early March and made three appearances during spring training. While he didn’t pitch in Friday’s opening night loss, his former teammate and now manager Yoshinobu Takahashi called his number with a one-run lead in the eighth inning on Saturday.
“I wasn’t really thinking about anything but the No. 6 batter (who would lead off the eighth),” Uehara said when asked about what was going through his head as he warmed up. “The team had a one-run lead, and I didn’t want to let them tie it up.”
Uehara began the frame by retiring Yusuke Oyama on three pitches (all swinging strikes), finishing off the second-year infielder with a splitter.
“I’m still trying to be more precise with it,” Uehara said of the pitch.
He retired Kento Itohara on a flyball to left and Shun Takayama on a grounder to second as a majority of the 45,963 in attendance loudly voiced their approval.
“Today was a game against Hanshin, so there were a lot of people here,” Uehara said. “So I’m glad I was able to hold them.”
Takahashi called the atmosphere “amazing.”
“He finished the inning with a good rhythm,” Takahashi said.
Uehara gave out a round of enthusiastic high-fives as he returned to the bench.
“They were just telling me things like ‘nice pitching’ and ‘good job,'” Uehara said of his teammates.
Asked about his role, Uehara said he’d pitch whenever he was asked to and said his goal is to remain in good enough condition to remain with the top team.
“I want to pitch on the ichi-gun for the entire year,” he said.