Jackie MacMullan

Okajima was much better than OK

By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Columnist / October 26, 2007

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The first Japanese-born pitcher to appear in the World Series appeared unimpressed by his own historic moment last night. But then, that has been the demeanor reliever Hideki Okajima has adopted since he made the decision to follow his more celebrated countryman, Daisuke Matsuzaka, to this strange and wonderful ballpark, where everything seemingly has a nickname: the Wall, the pole, even the hot dogs.

Okajima has not spent the better part of his career yearning to achieve validation in America's major leagues. He did not arrive with Dice-K's résumé or the burden of the weighty expectations that accompanied it. He wasn't focused on garnering international baseball platitudes. He wasn't bent on carrying the torch for his countrymen.

In fact, he wasn't quite sure he wanted to pitch in the United States at all.

And yet, there he was, carving out some dirt on the Fenway mound last night, with two on and one out in the sixth, and his team, the Boston Red Sox, attempting to protect a precarious 2-1 lead over the Colorado Rockies in Game 2 of the World Series.

The ball had been entrusted to him by manager Terry Francona. The lead had been entrusted to him by the starting pitcher, Curt Schilling, who had thrown just 81 pitches when Francona signaled for the switch after the righthander walked Todd Helton.

What was this 31-year-old from Kyoto thinking when he found himself in such a pressure situation? It is hard for us to know sometimes. He does not speak the language, so he must rely on others to talk and to translate, and to annunciate for him.

But what Okajima demonstrated last night can be understood in any language. When you dominate, you don't need to say much.

Your pitching line says it all.

So here it is: 2 1/3 innings without giving up a hit, a run, or allowing a base runner. Okey punched out four batters during his critical juncture in this game, and bridged the way for Jonathan Papelbon to close out the victory.

"Okajima was perfect, just absolutely perfect - every single pitch," lauded Schilling after the win. "And that's a hell of a lineup to go through."

"He was awesome," gushed fellow reliever Mike Timlin, who once held the job Okajima has mastered for the Sox this season. "His arm speed was great on every pitch. His heater was great. I haven't seen him throw the ball like that in three months."

The key was Okajima's command. After falling behind to the initial batter he faced, Garrett Atkins (whom he coaxed into grounding out to first), Okajima began firing strikes. He needed just three pitches to strike out Brad Hawpe to end the sixth.

He induced shortstop Troy Tulowitzki into a fly ball to right on the first pitch in the seventh. He needed only four pitches to eliminate the next batter, Yorvit Torrealba, with a ground ball to short. And then he punched out DH Ryan Spilborghs to end the inning on five pitches. He refused to saddle himself with any Youkilis-type battles with Rockies batters.

In the eighth, Okajima caught Willy Taveras looking at strike three. And, by the time he struck out Kaz Matsui on an 84-mile-per-hour changeup, Papelbon was warm and ready to take the baton to finish off this bullpen relay.

"If Okey doesn't throw as many strikes as he did, he wouldn't have been able to stay out there as long as he did," said Francona. "He was so good. His command was spectacular. It set up the whole game fo rus."

Although it was Matsuzaka who arrived in this country with all the platitudes in tow, in the early part of the season, it was Okajima who surprised many with his performance. Initially viewed as an afterthought, he quickly became a key member of the bullpen. But as the long season dragged on, Okajima began dragging with it.

The club made a decision in the final weeks to reduce his workload, monitor his innings, and try to give him a chance to rejuvenate. From Timlin's vantage point, at least, it worked.

"I think that rest really helped," Timlin said. "Okey's not used to our season. He might have been a little tired. What I like about him is he doesn't try to do what he can't do. He doesn't put too much pressure on himself.

"When things don't go well, he doesn't hold onto it. He's got a great reliever's mentality. It's awesome."

The bullpen, with Timlin leading the charge, has created their own little universe within the ball club this season. They designated a toy stuffed parrot as their mascot, and were horrified last week when it briefly disappeared. Okajima had grown accustomed to rubbing the parrot for luck before he took the mound. It was a small way of being able to make a young man from a foreign land who speaks a different language to feel part of things.

"It's not easy, what he's trying to do," said reliever Eric Gagné. "I lived in Japan for a while, and you don't realize how taxing it is to be dealing with a different culture, a different language.

"In this case, he's also dealing with a big, big adjustment to the major leagues here. The little stuff we do makes him feel part of it. It makes him feel like he's home."

It remains to be seen how long Okajima will enjoy the comforts of this strange ballpark with its odd nicknames and its quirky customs. That's a worry for another day. As long as he's planning on sticking around through the end of the Series, that's all anyone in his clubhouse cares about for now.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

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