Spotlight isn't on Uehara this season

Pitcher isn't center of attention as he transitions to relief role

March 14, 2010|By Jeff Zrebiec |

SARASOTA, Fla. — - On this day, the biggest Orioles attraction of last spring is throwing a bullpen session in relative anonymity.

Koji Uehara grips the ball, begins his windup and bounds toward home plate, repeating the process about 35 more times as pitching coach Rick Kranitz and bullpen coach Alan Dunn watch nearby.

There is no huge Japanese media contingent chronicling Uehara's every move. The photographers that arrived en masse at the Orioles' complex in Fort Lauderdale last year are mostly absent from Ed Smith Stadium. For the most part, Uehara is even avoiding the curious gaze of teammates and American reporters.

The scene, from earlier this month, has been both a regular and a comfortable one this spring for Uehara, who is making the transition from a starter to reliever amid strikingly little fanfare compared with what surrounded him last year after he became the first Japanese-born player to sign with the Orioles.

Uehara is even talking as if he's an Orioles spring training invitee, just hoping to open some eyes and secure a spot on the roster.

"We have some good pitchers around, and I'm not sitting and thinking that my position is safe," Uehara, 35, said through interpreter Jiwon Bang. "I know I have to perform well."

Regardless of how well he pitches over the next couple of weeks, Uehara will be on the Orioles' Opening Day roster, assuming he's able to stay healthy, which proved difficult last season. He'll serve as a setup man to closer Mike Gonzalez rather than the team's No. 2 starter.

"He's not been forgotten by us," Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said. "We're confident that he'll help us in the bullpen this year."

The early returns have been good. In three Grapefruit League innings, Uehara has allowed no runs and just one hit, striking out three. But even more than those appearances, Oriole officials have watched Uehara's bullpen sessions and come away impressed by the crispness and movement of his pitches.

"He's got life back onto his pitches," manager Dave Trembley said. "He looks like he has the quickness back in his delivery. He's been very impressive so far."

Last season, Uehara started strong and appeared to wear down, hampered first by hamstring issues and then by a partially torn flexor tendon in his right elbow. Uehara, who turns 36 next month, did not pitch in a game after June 23 and was forced to spend the rest of the season rehabilitating his elbow mostly far away from the new teammates he was enjoying getting to know.

The period after his injury last season was "not fun, not fun at all," Uehara said.

Uehara, an outgoing sort who loves joking around with teammates, has been back to his playful self this spring, even though he acknowledged that he would prefer to be part of the Orioles' rotation.

An eight-time Japanese league All-Star and a two-time recipient of the Sawamura Award given to the top pitcher in Nippon Professional Baseball, Uehara signed a two-year, $10 million deal with the Orioles in January 2009 because they were the one team willing to give him an opportunity to start.

That appeared to be a wise decision when Uehara beat the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers in his first two starts. However, he won none of his remaining 10 starts and pitched seven complete innings just once during that span.

MacPhail said the team knew Uehara might have to transition into a relief role, and to his credit, Uehara, who saved 32 games for the Yomiuri Giants in 2007, hasn't complained.

"There is still a part of me that wants to start, but at the same time, it's a team decision," he said. "I'm happy to do whatever the team wants me to do. ... I want to be in the major leagues, be on the team and be a contributor for the whole season."

Trembley has applauded the way the right-hander has gone about his business this spring.

"He seems to have come into camp in much better shape, stronger, and he's acclimated himself much better to the style of play here, what the conditions are, what the workouts are all about," Trembley said. "Last year, I think he was still on his program from how it was over in Japan. I don't see that this year. I see him integrated more in how things are done as a team."

It sure hasn't hurt that Uehara has had to deal with far fewer distractions. Last year, there were about 10 Japanese media members at every Orioles spring workout and about 20 reporters present on days he pitched.

They trailed Uehara from the time he arrived in the clubhouse to the moment he left, often peppering him with questions as he climbed into his car. This year, a sizable group of Japanese reporters was present for the first couple of days of Orioles workouts, but that crowd has thinned to a precious few.

Hideki Okuda, a reporter for Sports Nippon Newspaper in Tokyo who has covered American baseball for more than two decades, said the lack of attention on Uehara from the media is more of a reflection of the popularity of the other Japanese players.

"We have 15 Japanese players participating in MLB camps this spring," Okuda said. "Simply there are more demands for Hideki Matsui, Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka. No publications can send 15 reporters to the U.S."

Though Uehara said he's used to the attention - he is treated like a celebrity when he's back home in Tokyo - and it didn't bother him last year, he acknowledged that it has been easier this spring to get his work done without any distractions. Orioles players and coaches have also noticed the difference.

"I think he can just fit in, do his job and not be bogged down," Kranitz said. "Every time he turned around last year, somebody asked him a question on how he did, how he felt. It's nice to be able to have a routine because he's a routine guy. It's been great. If he can do the things that I know he's capable of doing, he'll be a real asset for us."

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