Okajima struggles once again
Last season's magic still MIA
Okie not dokie
Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek talks about Hideki Okajima's recent struggles as the reliever has allowed 12 of 15 inherited runners to score this season.
HOUSTON - It had been six weeks since Hideki Okajima was brought into a game in this situation. Six weeks since Okajima entered with a runner on, his overall struggles and inherited runners making for a combustible formula. Back on May 14, it was Jay Payton whose grand slam temporarily ended the experiment with the reliever and men on base.
Until yesterday afternoon. With the score tied, 2-2, and Miguel Tejada on first after singling off David Aardsma, Okajima uncorked a wild pitch that sent the Astros shortstop to second base. Then, after a groundout to the mound by Geoff Blum, Mark Loretta singled up the middle, scoring Tejada with the winning run in a 3-2 Sox loss.
Once again, a splitter ended badly for Okajima, this one heading back up the middle to give Aardsma the loss. That splitter, and the finish on it, has been the major culprit in Okajima's downturn. So what does he need to do to correct it?
"Just getting through a couple clean outings, I think, for him," said catcher Jason Varitek. "When things are rough, you tend to try and overcorrect. That, more so than the pitch, could have been a selection error. I think he gets a couple clean outings and he'll be fine. We just can't let him lose any confidence."
That wasn't the only time Varitek mentioned confidence. He emphasized the point in his next answer.
"I hope not," Varitek said, when asked if he thought it was an issue for Okajima. "I'll tend to find that out over these next couple days."
It's no accident Okajima has been called in only to start an inning over his last 15 appearances. It's hard to trust a pitcher who has allowed 14 hits and six runs in 6 2/3 innings over his last eight games - not to mention having allowed 12 of 15 inherited runners to score this season. That's why, even though he came on in the eighth inning yesterday, it might not be quite as unquestioned a role as last season.
"When you have the uncertainty with the split that Oki has been dealing with, it lends to dependability," pitching coach John Farrell said before the game. "We're going to go with the most dependable, the most consistent. We're not going to completely abandon the guy because he's going through a period where he's not been as dominant as a year ago. Those conversations have been had.
"We're not looking to revamp the roles in our bullpen, but we'll look at the matchups a little bit more closely, where last year was automatic. He got the eighth."
He got part of the eighth against the Astros yesterday, after allowing a solo home run to Reggie Abercrombie in the eighth Friday night. After Tejada followed with a single, Okajima was removed for Jonathan Papelbon.
Okajima, who hasn't been talking to the media during his downturn, again declined to speak with reporters, telling interpreter Jeff Yamaguchi he had nothing to say.
Varitek did try to absorb some of the blame for Okajima's struggles yesterday, mentioning that "99 out of 100 times, I smother that ball," about the curveball that went for a wild pitch to get Tejada in scoring position. But it was the splitter to Loretta that finished him off.
"His pitch is a changeup, so I was completely sitting on it," Loretta said, misidentifying the pitch. "I was out in front just a hair, but was able to stay back enough to get it up the middle."
It's clear that taming - or figuring out - the splitter might help pave the way back to success. It seems that, given Okajima's troubles, especially with inherited runners, it's difficult for anyone to give a good explanation.
"I don't think I can," manager Terry Francona said. "Part of that is, besides today, those were all a pretty decent time ago. He hasn't come in a lot of innings in the middle for a while. When guys go through a frustrating time, I don't think we can completely run from what they do.
"We still need Oki to get where we want to go."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.