BOSTON -- Koji Uehara is doing a pretty good Mariano Rivera impression this postseason.
The 38-year-old Red Sox closer has been nearly unhittable, turning into the kind of weapon in these playoffs that Rivera was for nearly 20 years for the Yankees.
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"It's been unbelievable," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said before Game 6 of the ALCS Saturday night. "He's been absolutely fantastic."
Uehara entered Game 6 having allowed three hits and no runs in five innings in four appearances in this series, recording two saves. Overall, the righthander has allowed one run in eight innings in seven appearances during this postseason.
Uehara, whose fastball rarely surpasses 90 mph and who relies on a devastating splitter -- picture Mike Scott, circa 1986 -- had struck out 11 and hadn't walked a batter.
"They caught lightning in a bottle," Leyland said. "He's been absolutely terrific, there's no question about that. And obviously his significance right now is probably as important as anybody they've got on their team."
The 6-2, 195-pound Uehara retired all five batters he faced to close out Game 5, a 4-3 Red Sox victory that gave them a three-games-to-two lead in the series. It was his third multi-inning save this postseason.
His performance was reminiscent of the kind of outings Rivera put up regularly in the postseason, most recently in 2009. He went 5-for-5 in save opportunities, allowing one run in 16 innings (a 0.56 ERA.) Six of Rivera's outings were for more than an inning and he recorded two two-inning saves, in Game 6 of the ALCS against the Angels and Game 2 of the World Series against the Phillies.
Red Sox manager John Farrell feels very much the way Joe Girardi, and before him Joe Torre, did with Rivera. "Koji's ability, he's our best reliever," Farrell said. "And to be able to use him for more outs is hopefully shortening the game down."
Uehara did not start the season as the Red Sox closer. Farrell turned to him only after season-ending injuries suffered by Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey.
Since taking over as closer in mid-June, Uehara has a 0.52 ERA, recording 24 saves in 26 chances with a 70-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 48 appearances, according to the Boston Herald.
Uehara led all MLB relievers with 44 perfect appearances and led the AL with 64 scoreless outings. That included a 301/3-inning scoreless streak from July 9-Sept. 13, the longest scoreless streak for any pitcher this season. He also retired a club-record 37 straight batters from Aug. 17-Sept. 17.
"Having him in that ninth-inning role, it's changed our season around, for sure," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia told Boston reporters after the Red Sox worked out here Friday. "If he doesn't step up like that, we've probably lost a few games and we don't feel as confident in those late innings."
Few saw this kind of season coming.
Uehara spent 2009-10 with the Orioles before being dealt to the Rangers July 30, 2011, with cash, for Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter. Uehara had a 4.00 ERA in 22 games in 2011, and though he posted a 1.75 ERA in 37 games in 2012, he hit the free-agent market, signing with the Red Sox last December.
Uehara's 2012 is the reason Farrell said this year didn't come as a complete shock.
"With the way things transpired, it became a necessity," Farrell said of inserting Uehara as the closer. "But we knew he was going to be a key contributor toward the back end of the bullpen. His track record indicates that. And I keep going back to the fact that this is -- he's not doing something this year that is so out of the norm for him. He's been a very successful pitcher, whether it's been in Japan or here. But the fact he's the closer here, he's gained the notoriety that he deserves."