#Shortstops: Pitching In

Written by: Oleg Sheahan

No country has dominated international baseball this century like Japan. The nation has won seven Asian Baseball Championships, three of the five World Baseball Classics, and gold and bronze medals at the Olympics. Led by their superb pitching, including Daisuke Matsuzaka and Shohei Ohtani, Team Japan has been powered by superstars.

But in a game like baseball, it takes the whole roster beyond one MVP-caliber player to win. Koji Uehara was crucial to much of Japan’s international success in the 2000s.

Japan celebrates 2006 World Baseball Classic victory
Team Japan won the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006 as Koji Uehara led the tournament in innings pitched and strikeouts. (Richard Lasner/National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)
Blue and red Japan jacket with signature
Koji Uehara wore this warmup jacket while playing for Team Japan during the 2006 World Baseball Classic. (Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

An accomplished pitcher for the Yomiuri Giants of Nippon Professional Baseball, Uehara won two Sawamura awards – Japan’s equivalent of the Cy Young Award – as his league’s best pitcher. However, the spirited pitcher didn’t represent a typical strong 6-foot-3, flamethrowing ace with four different pitches. Uehara stood a slim 6-foot-2 and relied upon a two-pitch mix:  A fastball that often came in under 90 mph and a wipeout splitter that befuddled hitters.

Uehara used these two pitches to dominate the international circuit. In 25 appearances between various world tournaments, Uehara totaled 12 wins and wasn’t charged with a single loss.

It was in the 2006 World Baseball Classic that Uehara reached new heights. Starting three games, he led the tournament in innings pitched and strikeouts.

In the second round, Uehara pitched five innings of one-run baseball against a Team USA lineup featuring the likes of Ken Griffey Jr., Álex Rodríguez and Derek Jeter among other superstars.

Uehara shined his brightest in his semifinal start against archrival South Korea. With his country and teammates behind him in a win or go home game, Uehara was electric. The right-hander tossed seven shutout innings, allowing just three hits and striking out eight to lead his country over the squad that had previously beat them twice in the tournament. Japan would later defeat Cuba to be crowned the first WBC champions.

The warmup jacket worn by Uehara prior to his semifinal start is in the collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The jacket is signed on the right side of the chest and has various patches on it. The patches include one reading “Japan” on the front left, a Japanese flag on the right sleeve, and a WBC patch on the left sleeve as well as on the back of the collar.

Koji Uehara raises arms after final out of 2013 World Series
Koji Uehara pitched nine seasons in Major League Baseball, recording the final out of the 2013 World Series. (Brad Mangin/MLB Photos)

After a brilliant career in Japan, Uehara came to America to pitch in MLB in 2009. Success with the Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers led up to Uehara having one of the most dominant relief seasons in Major League history, helping to lead the 2013 Boston Red Sox to their third World Series championship in 10 years. From July 9 to Sept. 17, Uehara retired 37 consecutive batters, breaking multiple records. Uehara won the American League Championship Series MVP that year after throwing six shutout innings. Later, he would record the final out of the World Series in Game 6 at Fenway Park. Uehara pitched four more seasons in MLB before returning to Japan to finish his career.

Oleg Sheahan is the 2024 multimedia intern in the Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Leadership Development