If Game 1 of the Japan Series was free agent Koji Uehara's last time on the hill for Yomiuri, he left Giants fans looking down at a changed man on Saturday.
Uehara again showed he was no longer the same pitcher who struggled early in the season and much of the past three years, looking sharp but losing a close pitching duel with the Saitama Seibu Lions' Hideaki Wakui in a 2-1 loss Saturday.
Uehara got off to an 0-4 start this season and toiled most of the first half on the Giants' farm team. He did not get his first win until July 2 in a relief effort.
But he returned to form to finish 6-5 and reclaim his position as ace, putting up good enough numbers to earn the start the Series opener at Tokyo Dome.
He was oozing confidence--perhaps a little too much.
A couple of misplaced fastballs--one to Taketoshi Goto and the second to Hiroyuki Nakajima--got spanked over the fence, but Uehara held the big-batting Lions to just those two runs on five hits over seven innings.
"He came into the Series in very good shape," Yomiuri skipper Tatsunori Hara said. "After this, I'm sure he has some things about his pitching that he'll be unhappy about."
Uehara had little to say while rushing out of the stadium, but emphasized the outcome was more important than his numbers.
"This isn't the time to talk about pitching well or not," he griped.
In April, Uehara earned his right to become a free agent following the season. He declared at that time he would be major-league bound, but now said he'd only talk about his future once the season ended.
The 33-year-old Uehara showed flashes of the dominance that had scouts wiping drool from their chins earlier this decade over the idea of seeing him on a major league mound.
Uehara walked one and fanned eight in his 105 pitches, but he was in control of his pitches and, most of all, his emotions.
The indelible image of a bratty Uehara kicking the dirt and blubbering on the rubber after being forced to intentionally walk Yakult Swallows slugger Roberto Petagine in the right-hander's rookie season in 1999 was a snapshot in his career.
He stayed cool on Saturday, when Seibu leadoff man Yasuyuki Kataoka reached on a single. Uehara stubbornly threw to first until he picked the Pacific League's top base stealer off.
He walked the next batter, but fanned three straight over the first and second innings to keep the Lions from scoring.
Uehara kept the game close but now he needs his teammates to keep the Series close to earn him a final chance at a win as a Giant.