Uehara has a five-star debut vs. Yanks
O's righty holds his own vs. Bombers in first MLB start
BALTIMORE -- This start required no interpretation at all.
Koji Uehara proved to be a one-man Berlitz lesson on Wednesday night, when he showed that his strike-heavy skills will translate well against big league hitters. Uehara kept his composure and his command in his Major League debut, and the Orioles backed him with heavy hitting in a 7-5 win over the Yankees.
New York threatened late, but the game -- and the game ball -- belonged to Uehara.
"I think I was tenacious," said Uehara via interpreter Jiwon Bang, describing his effort on the mound. "I'm really happy. Right before the game, I was a little bit hyper. But right now, I'm pretty calm."
Uehara, a former Rookie of the Year and two-time Sawamura Award winner in his native land, became the 15th Japanese pitcher to start a big league game and the first Japanese-born Oriole in one fell swoop. But perhaps more importantly, he gives Baltimore another starter who will throw strikes.
Baltimore, which had led the American League in walks in each of the past two seasons, coveted a pitcher like Uehara. And the right-hander showed why on Wednesday night, when he threw first-pitch strikes to nine of the first 13 batters he faced and only fell into four three-ball counts in five innings.
"The guy's been down this road so many times," said manager Dave Trembley. "But he's got to be relieved that we can turn the page on this first one. He's got to feel real proud of what he did."
In this case, he's probably proud of how he did it. Uehara made his debut on a cold night in which he could hardly feel the seams of the baseball, and he thrived against the Yankees without using his curveball. Uehara worked primarily with his fastball and split-finger, mixing in a changeup for emphasis.
The Yankees (0-2) probably couldn't tell the difference. Uehara walked the first batter he faced and then calmly pitched out of the jam. He got seven of his 15 outs on fly balls and four more on popups, keeping New York off balance. Uehara retired nine of the final 12 batters he faced and left with a six-run lead.
Afterward, he let some light shine through his disciplined veneer. Uehara hugged Trembley and pitching coach Rick Kranitz, and he told reporters that this experience ranked "right on top" of his distinguished career.
Catcher Gregg Zaun, who ushered Uehara through his start, was proud to be a part of it.
"It was nice to see a rookie -- if you can call Koji a rookie -- get out there for the first time in the big leagues and be successful," said Zaun. "He was everything I expected him to be. I'm sure when it warms up a little bit, we can figure out why the ball feels slick to him. I'm sure he'll be a lot better, but he was good enough tonight."
Uehara, by any account, got a major boost from his offense. Adam Jones, Nick Markakis and Aubrey Huff drove three successive doubles in the first inning to give the home team a 2-0 lead. And Baltimore came back for five more runs in the fourth, capped by a towering two-run home run to right field by Markakis.
The Yankees didn't go away, though, and came back in the ninth inning to make things interesting. Derek Jeter popped a two-run home run off Dennis Sarfate to make it a three-run game, and Mark Teixeira dumped an RBI double off closer George Sherrill. But the closer retired Hideki Matsui to end the game.
"It gives us a lot of confidence," said Markakis of beating the Yankees twice in two days. "We're not going to lay down. We're going to play well. We're going to play nine innings, and as long as the pitchers keep doing what they're doing, hopefully, we can continue to do what we're doing."
And as for Uehara, the Orioles can only hope his transition continues to go as well as it did in his first start. Zaun said that there's no doubt in his mind that the 34-year-old's stuff is good enough to compete in the Major Leagues, and he also said that Uehara should get better as he gains more experience.
"He's pretty even-keel," said Zaun. "We've just been pleased as pie to have him around. He's a great guy, we enjoy his sense of humor and he's had a lot of fun with us. I think tonight's win meant a lot to him, and it doesn't really surprise me. This guy's stuff is good, and it's good enough to be really good over here."
Uehara said that he would keep the game ball and get his teammates to autograph it, but he also refrained from making any overarching comments about his place in the Major League hierarchy.
"The season just started," Uehara said. "I'll find out soon. But again, I'm really happy."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.