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His role is invaluable

Okajima sets up for closing time

We write this over and over, but we can't write it enough. How valuable is Hideki Okajima? How much of a godsend has he been for the Red Sox?

You can grit your teeth and wrench your hands when you talk about Red Sox free agents J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo, $23 million per year of disappointment. The acquisition of Coco Crisp from the Indians last season was another questionable acquisition. But Okajima? Sheer brilliance, blind luck, something in between? Who knows. And who cares?

The fact is he's been amazingly effective, even yesterday, when he put the first two runners on base in the eighth inning of a 1-0 game and he comes back as if he's just suffered a momentary lapse. Barry Bonds up. Two on, nobody out? No biggie. He threw him five pitches and Bonds didn't swing. Okajima froze him on two 87-mile-per-hour fastballs. Imagine throwing Bonds an 87-m.p.h. heater and getting away with it? Okajima did, because he's got something on that ball that freezes hitters. It could be a last-minute explosion hitters speak of or deception in his delivery. Or the setup with that funny changeup that has turned him into a setup man extraordinaire and a guy who should make the All-Star team and contend for Rookie of the Year. Even if he is 31 and a veteran of 12 professional seasons in Japan.

Between now and the end of the season, the league might catch up to him. We keep writing that, too, but it hasn't happened. We keep writing that the Red Sox need to acquire a righthanded setup man to augment Okajima and Papelbon. But again we ask why?

Okajima has frustrated the daylights out of righthanded hitters. There were probably people sitting in front of their televisions all over Red Sox Nation wondering, "Why isn't Jonathan Papelbon up, and why isn't he in this game?"

But then you just watch and wait, and watch and marvel.

Okajima walked Randy Winn to lead off the eighth. He allowed a single to left by Ray Durham on a 3-and-2 pitch. The boos started as Bonds came strolling to the plate, as he had intently watched Okajima from the on-deck circle. Bonds got up, 2 and 0, then pitching coach John Farrell sauntered out of the dugout for a chat.

Okajima said Farrell merely said, "How's everything? How's your health?" Sox manager Terry Francona said Farrell told Okajima he needed a double-play ball.

After Farrell departed, Okajima came back with a fastball for a strike. Then another strike. It was 2 and 2 to Bonds, and Okajima threw a fastball or a cut fastball that Bonds watched for strike three. One out, but the biggest out of the game.

From there, with Okajima's confidence high again, he got Bengie Molina to fly to medium right and got pinch hitter Kevin Frandsen to ground into a force at second. Okajima bounced off the mound, the crowd on its feet. He had successfully bridged the gap again for Papelbon.

This is like watching Adam Vinatieri make a field goal with the game on the line. Ice water in his veins.

When asked about facing Bonds, the greatest player of his generation, Okajima merely shrugged and said, "I approached him the same as I would any other hitter." Ho-hum. Barry Bonds. You can bet everyone else in the Red Sox dugout was drenched in sweat. You can bet the wheels were spinning inside Francona's head. "Should I walk him?" And here's Okajima throwing fastballs in great locations, but at 87 m.p.h., the type Bonds usually launches over some fence in Any Ballpark, USA.

His performance was no surprise to Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who said, " The guy is having a great year and he made some great pitches. Got behind 2-0 and came back with three pitches and you tip your cap at that point. We had good hitters coming up there and we just needed somebody to come through."

No such luck.

Francona said he did not think about making the move to Papelbon after Okajima put two on because of Okajima's emergence as an elite reliever.

"If we had gotten to [Pedro] Feliz [the sixth batter of the inning], and the game is still in our favor, we probably would have brought Pap in because I hadn't used him. Game on the line, you don't want him to be sitting out there. But the emergence of Okajima, he's been good. It's not like righties are climbing all over him."

Righthanders are hitting .149 (11 for 74) against Okajima. Lefthanders are hitting .163 (7 for 43). He's allowed just one run in his past seven games and has struck out 30 in 33 2/3 innings.

Okajima was asked about success so quickly into his major league career. The answer was matter of fact. "I'm not doing anything special. I'm doing the same thing I did in Japan. So there's no surprise."

But there is a surprise. Okajima was supposed to be the guy brought here to keep Dice-K company. Now he's preserving wins for him. When Okajima comes into a game, he's doing what all of the top setup guys -- Scott Linebrink, Scot Shields, Scott Proctor -- do.

If you rated the reasons for the success of the Red Sox, put a check next to Okajima's name first.