When the interview finally ended and the media dissipated, Oriole reliever Koji Uehara took a deep breath looked down at the floor and tried to blink back the tears slowly welling up behind his eyes. But the emotion of Saturday afternoon –in which Uehara was traded to the Texas Rangers in exchange for first baseman Chris Davis and pitcher Tommy Hunter – was too much for the well-liked right-hander, widely considered one of the best available arms on the trade market, as he said goodbye to the organization that signed him out of Japan.
“I’m sure I’ll always be thinking of Baltimore,” said Uehara, who signed a two-year deal with the Orioles in January 2009, through interpreter Jiwon Bang. “There are two contradicting feelings. Part of me says that a contending team wants me, and that’s gratifying. At the same time, Baltimore–I’ve been there for two years. It’s really sad.”
Signed to be a top-of-the-rotation starter behind ace Jeremy Guthrie, Uehara went 2-4 with a 4.05 ERA in his first 12 Major League starts but was riddled with injury and deemed a better fit for the bullpen. The move –which was enacted last spring – gave the Orioles a potent late-inning arm as Uehara emerged as the team’s closer, compiling a 2.86 ERA to go along with 13 saves.
But the injury issues continued as Uehara found himself on the disabled list twice in 2010 and the Orioles cautiously signed the free agent to a two-year deal heavily incentive-based. A new conditioning program and very light spring workload kept Uehara –who was used sparingly to start the season – healthy and productive and he quickly established himself as one of the best right-handed relievers in the American League.
The 36-year-old Uehara has pitched to a 1.02 ERA in his last 32 games, allowing just four earned runs over a 35 1/3 innings-span and his walk to strikeout ratio is an incredible 62-8. Using a fastball that tops out in the upper 80s, Uehara is a deception artist with pinpoint control and he will join a Rangers team badly in need of late-inning relief.
“They have a great lineup and great starting pitching,” Uehara said of the Rangers. “They give me a chance to pitch, and I’ll do my best.”
Texas had been talking to the Padres about Heath Bell, but Uehara has better numbers, he has been successful in the American League, and he has a vesting option for next season. If he pitches in 12 more games this season, he becomes a signed player for 2012 at $4 million. The Orioles also sent $2 million to Texas as part of the deal.
Asked if there was any anxiety over pitching in the Texas heat, a place Uehara has struggled in, he admitted it could be a challenge down the line.
“Maybe. That’s one big concern that I may have,” Uehara said. “I’m not sure, yet.”
What he was sure of was the fondness he will always have for the organization, his teammates and the city of Baltimore. Asked if he had a final message for the Orioles’ fan base, Uehara expressed his gratitude.
“We’re not going to be on the same team anymore, but if they have time to check me out, that would be great,” he said. “I just want to thank the fans for their cheers and everything.”