Since he set up shop, few have set up like Okajima

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / February 27, 2010

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FORT MYERS, Fla. - Do not expect to run into Red Sox reliever Hideki Okajima walking the Freedom Trail this summer or enjoying a ride on one of the Swan Boats before heading over to Faneuil Hall for a bite to eat.

The lefthander, who is preparing for his fourth season in Boston, has yet to partake in any of the city’s charms, outside of Fenway Park. He is there to throw strikes, not see the sights.

“I haven’t really looked around that much. I came to Boston to play baseball, not to be a tourist,’’ Okajima said this week during one of the extended interviews he has granted since coming from Japan in 2007. “When there’s a day off this year, maybe I’ll go out some more than I have. I have heard the city is nice.’’

Okajima couldn’t even come up with the name of a favorite restaurant, tilting his head and thinking while interpreter Ryo Shinkawa waited for a response.

“I usually eat at home, my wife’s cooking is the best,’’ Okajima finally said. “That is my answer. But I have had some good Italian dinners in Boston.’’

So there’s that, at least.

Not that any of this matters to the Red Sox. Okajima is one of the most reliable setup men in the game, averaging 66 appearances in his three seasons with the club, while giving up only 155 hits over 192 innings. Okajima allowed 16 percent of inherited runners to score last season, the third-best mark in the American League. Opponents hit .138 against him with two outs and runners in scoring position.

“He’s been so good. I would have never been able to tell you his first year here that he would be able to handle the responsibility,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “Now we want him to have the ball, sometimes too much.’’

Okajima rarely breaks 90 miles per hour with his fastball, but spots it to both sides of the plate and isn’t afraid to come inside to set up the next pitch. What helps make him successful is the difficulty hitters have in finding the ball in his delivery. Okajima tilts his head downward and to his right as he releases the pitch, his eyes looking away from the plate.

He also throws a curveball with an exaggerated break, and a changeup.

“His command is flawless with a delivery that you wouldn’t teach people. But somehow that ball goes right where he wants it to,’’ Francona said.

Okajima has made even the best lefthanded hitters in the AL look foolish. Nick Markakis (4 of 18), Johnny Damon (2 for 11), Carl Crawford (1 for 10), and Carlos Pena (1 for 6) are among his more frequent victims.

But righthanded hitters pick up his delivery better. Yankees captain Derek Jeter has hit Okajima well, and Okajima’s new teammate Marco Scutaro collected hits both times he faced Okajima.

“It wasn’t easy,’’ Scutaro said. “His location is tremendous. He throws the fastball in and he changes your eye level with his breaking ball. He throws such a good changeup that his fastball looks like it’s going 100.’’

It wasn’t always like that. When Okajima arrived in Florida for his first spring training with the Red Sox, Francona was not impressed, and he told general manager Theo Epstein he had no idea how best to use the lefthander.

“He was like, ‘Relax, he’ll be fine.’ He was right,’’ Francona said.

Okajima raised some more doubts when Kansas City’s John Buck homered on the first pitch Okajima threw in the majors. But Okajima went 20 2/3 innings before giving up another run in his All-Star debut season. He has been a key member of the bullpen since.

“He’s been phenomenal,’’ Francona said. “The game just never seems to speed up for him.’’

Okajima also has been a remarkable value, costing the Red Sox only $4.2 million in base salary over the first three years of his contract. He avoided arbitration in January, accepting a one-year deal worth $2.75 million. The Red Sox have him under control for two more seasons before he can become a free agent.

The goal for Okajima in spring training is to improve his performance against righthanded hitters, who last season hit .309 against him with a .386 on-base percentage. Of 38 hits Okajima gave up against righthanders, 12 were for extra bases.

“You’d like to see that gap [between lefthanded and righthanded batters] closed,’’ said pitching coach John Farrell, who plans to work with Okajima on pitch selection and location this spring. “That’s one area of improvement for him. But he’s getting better making those adjustments.’’

Okajima, who turned 34 in December, has no plans to give up pitching, knowing lefthanded relievers often have extended careers. He said his wife and two children are happy spending nine months of the year in the United States.

“As of now, I think I’ll stay,’’ he said. “I’m in the best baseball league in the world. I feel like I want to finish my career here. Going back to play in Japan is not in my mind.

“I want to maintain what I have done here and build off my accomplishments so far. Boston has been good for me.’’

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