Overlooked import is Red Sox's best set-up man
In the first week of March, after he made his Red Sox spring training debut with considerably less fanfare than his far more celebrated countryman and teammate, Hideki Okajima was asked how he felt pitching in the shadow of Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Okajima, answering in Japanese, gave a polite, stock reply. But then as he listened to the next question, he had another thought.
How prophetic. In just over a month, Okajima has gone from being the Red Sox's other Japanese pitcher to their most dependable set-up reliever.
After allowing a home run on the very first pitch he threw in the big leagues on Opening Day, Okajima has put together a string of nine scoreless appearances. He's allowed a hit in just one of his last nine outings, and he's struck out 12 in 10 2/3 innings of work while walking just three.
Lefties are just 1-for-11 against him; righties are a mere 2-for-21. He's held opponents to a collective .094 batting average, and Royals catcher John Buck's homer is the lone extra-base hit he's allowed.
He's fashioned a 0.93 ERA and has been a revelation to the Sox. Originally viewed as the team's second lefty in the bullpen behind J.C. Romero, he has graduated to the team's first choice in the eighth inning, their bridge to closer Jonathan Papelbon.
"We were going over our bullpen in spring training," said manager Terry Francona, "and it was one of those days when he had given up a homer on an 0-and-2 breaking pitch and we weren't too sure about him. But Theo [Epstein] said, 'When we get into the season, you're going to be going to him and you're going to love him.' And you know what? He was right."
Francona's ultimate endorsement came last Friday in the first game of the Red Sox-Yankees' series. With Jonathan Papelbon throwing 47 pitches in the previous two games in Toronto and the Sox especially mindful not to overwork their closer after his shoulder issues last summer, Francona needed someone else to nail down the final three outs in a one-run game.
Okajima got Jeter on a groundout, walked Abreu, retired the white-hot Rodriguez (two homers and a double in four previous at-bats) on a soft liner to second and fanned Kevin Thompson to earn his first major league save and further enhance his growing cult status.
It won't be often that Okajima gets thrown into save situations. But the Sox are unafraid to have him face right-handed hitters because of his changeup, meaning he can throw full innings without fear of exposing him.
The 31-year-old lefty has an over-the-top motion that makes his pitches difficult to pick up, which helps compensate for the fact that the velocity on his fastball is barely average, ranging from 83-88 mph.
"He's got a funky delivery," agreed Francona, "but he maintains his command. How he does it, I'm not sure. You would think it would hurt [his command]."
In addition to his command, Okajima thrives on the strength of his secondary pitches, which include a curve and a changeup.
But his key pitch may well have been discovered by accident. In the first week of the season, during a side session in Kansas City, pitching coach John Farrell marveled at the action on a pitch Okajima was toying with. Holding the ball with a split-finger grip, Okajima was throwing a changeup-screwball hybrid with incredible movement.
Ever since, it's been a big part of his repertoire.
"He seems to change speeds off his changeup -- or whatever that thing is," said one American League scout. "He spins it with ... a reverse Frisbee action. It's a plus pitch for him now, a great equalizer. But really, I think the key for him is the ability to throw strikes. That's pretty basic, but in that division, it's huge. If you're facing Toronto and New York and you're 2-and-1, 3-and-1 ... you get in those hitter's counts, you get killed. But he doesn't. It seems like he's always pitching ahead."
Okajima's impact on the Red Sox bullpen can't be overstated. Timlin is 41, missed all of spring training with an oblique strain and had a 6.06 ERA after the All-Star break last season. Romero and Brendan Donnelly were essentially discarded by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim after disappointing seasons, and Joel Pineiro pitched himself out of the Seattle rotation last year before being non-tendered in the offseason.
The likelihood that all four veterans would have bounce-back seasons at once wasn't strong. Now, with Okajima, the Sox can protect them by creating the right matchups.
"We were [originally] thinking [Okajima] could be a guy who could throw multiple innings earlier in the game," said Francona. "But the way he's pitching now, he deserves to be out there [with the game on the line]. He throws strikes, changes speeds, and the way his confidence is soaring, we can probably pitch him anytime."
Even, it would seem, out of the shadows of Dice-K and directly in the spotlight.
Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.