|Okajima: Hardly a dicey deal for the Red Sox|
|Written by Admin|
|Saturday, 05 May 2007 05:37|
The left-handed reliever was the second-most coveted Japanese pitcher signed by the Boston Red Sox in the offseason, largely written off as a baby sitter who could ease Matsuzaka's transition to the major leagues.
He's making things easier for Dice-K, all right, and in just the way the Red Sox had hoped: by mopping up for Matsuzaka and the rest of the Red Sox starters with inning after scoreless inning and helping Boston take an early lead in the AL East.
``He comes with a pedigree of pitching in big markets and pitching in big stages,'' said Craig Shipley, who handles international scouting for the Red Sox. ``This had nothing to do with Daisuke. I don't think teams are in the habit of signing this player to help that player's adjustment.''
The pursuit and signing of Matsuzaka was an international sensation that birthed new nicknames, marketing campaigns and breathless explanations of the ``gyroball'' mystery pitch and whether it really exists. A doughnut shop welcomed him to Fenway with a billboard in his native tongue; the mayor of Boston brought over a street sign in Japanese and the consul general from Japan threw out a ceremonial first pitch.
When the Red Sox arranged a media lunch with the two new Japanese pitchers, Okajima garnered barely a line or two in most stories - and usually to quote his opinion on Matsuzaka - as if the elder pitcher was the little brother who tagged along.
``That doesn't matter at all,'' Okajima said this week through a translator. ``In Japan, I'm used to being surrounded by media also, and it didn't make any difference to me.''
Different role, different league, different country - very little has made a difference to Okajima so far. He was picked as the top AL rookie in April with a streak of scoreless outings that was at 14 heading into Saturday's game against Minnesota. After he earned his first major league save against the New York Yankees, the Boston Herald joked that the Dice-K deal was an elaborate smoke screen to land the pitcher the Red Sox really wanted.
``Obviously, I couldn't anticipate how well he's going to do here,'' Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui said. ``I'm not surprised with the results he's had so far, knowing him and knowing what kind of pitcher he is.''
Matsui, who played with Okajima in Japan, is one of the few major leaguers who knew what to expect. Red Sox manager Terry Francona acknowledges he needed some time to figure out what do with his new lefty.
``When you're just looking at him ... he doesn't throw real hard. His fastball is kind of straight. Fundamentally, he does things you wouldn't teach to a young pitcher,'' Francona said.
``We didn't really see it. We saw a guy who was turning his head into the ground and said, 'How's he going to command?' But he does. You can't see how a guy's going to compete until he does.''
The 31-year-old Okajima made a similar first impression on opposing batters, allowing three homers in 11 spring training appearances. When the regular-season started, it was more of the same: He gave up a homer on the first pitch he threw in the major leagues, to Kansas City's John Buck.
Okajima hasn't allowed another run since.
``We were saying he was setting people up in spring training because he didn't show all of his pitches,'' infielder Alex Cora said.
That's not far from the truth.
``Through my experience, I learned spring training and the preseason games are not as significant as the regular season,'' Okajima said. ``I prepare myself to be 100 percent for the regular season.''
Then there's his pitching motion.
It starts out the conventional way, but as he swings his left arm over the top he jerks his head down so that he is looking not at the batter but at the ground, off toward third base.
``His eyes are in his neck,'' Cora said, pantomiming the motion for a Japanese TV crew.
Okajima said his coaches tried to fix his delivery early in his career, when he struggled with his control. But the Red Sox looked at a 12-year veteran who could get batters out and decided to leave him alone.
``The coaches told me my pitching form is my forte, it's something that makes me unique,'' he said. ``In this industry, results are everything, as long as you have good results coming out.''
The Red Sox won the rights to sign Matsuzaka over the offseason by paying a record $51.11 million posting fee to the Seibu Lions and then signing the pitcher to a six-year deal worth $52 million more. In the time it took for the Matsuzaka signing to wreak havoc on the baseball world, Boston more quietly signed Okajima to a two-year deal worth $2.5 million.
He was 2-2 with a 2.14 ERA and four saves in 55 games last season in Japan; overall, he was 34-32 with a 3.36 ERA and 41 saves in 12 years, mostly with the Central League's Yomiuri Giants.
Okajima's most exceptional pitch is a changeup that Red Sox bullpen coach Gary Tuck calls the ``Oki Doki'' - unlike Matsuzaka's gyroball, this one is for real. He combines that with a fastball that doesn't blow by hitters but goes where he wants it.
``He's got three or four pitches. He throws them all for strikes. And there's a novelty to it,'' said the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez. ``It seems like every time he's come in a game, he's kind of been a rally killer for us. We need to figure him out.''
His control was one of the things that made the Red Sox think he could make the transition from Japan. It also didn't hurt that he was part of two title-winning teams in Japan: the 2001 Giants and last year's Nippon Ham Fighters.
``This guy pitched 12 years in Japan,'' Shipley said. ``You're talking about a guy that pitched for the Tokyo Giants; they get more attention than any sports team in Japan. It's not like you're walking a kid out of Double-A onto a big league mound.''
AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum contributed to this story from New York and Associated Press Writer Paul J. Weber contributed from Arlington, Texas.