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Jackie MacMullan

Learning curve for Okajima

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Columnist / March 17, 2008

BRADENTON, Fla. - Hideki Okajima will be going home in a matter of days. But will his Japanese brethren recognize him?

For many of his Red Sox teammates, the upcoming trip to Tokyo is an onerous obligation that includes a dreaded 17-hour plane flight, but for Boston's lefthanded setup man, it will represent a crowning achievement. It will be, he explained yesterday, an immense honor to represent the world champion Boston Red Sox in his native land.

And yet, he said, he will return to Japan a different pitcher than the one who starred with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. Okajima said he has been transformed by his year in major league baseball, and is in the process of completely adopting the traditions and training methods of the Sons of Tito.

"Right now, I'm trying to stick with the American style," he said through his translator after pitching two scoreless innings in a 6-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at McKechnie Field yesterday. "I'm trying to forget everything I did in Japan."

Okajima's rookie season with the Sox was a success, but it also involved a steep learning curve. Nobody could prepare Okajima or Daisuke Matsuzaka for the enormous culture shock that awaited them. There were too many variables: the language, the customs, the food, the culture, the traditions, the training methods, even the clubhouse humor.

And we haven't even discussed the hordes of media that recorded each and every pitch the two made. The scrutiny was heavy and unrelenting. And when Okajima faltered in August, at times it also was unforgiving.

"He needed a little bit of a blow in September," said manager Terry Francona. "It was probably my fault. Maybe sometimes we ask guys to give more than they are able to give."

Okajima served up an Opening Day homer to Kansas City's John Buck in his major league debut, then did not allow another run through May 20, making 19 scoreless appearances. While the more celebrated Matsuzaka scuffled a bit in his early outings, Okajima became one of the unexpected feel-good stories of the Red Sox' championship season.

He was so effective, Francona found himself calling his number more than he ever envisioned when Boston signed him as a free agent Nov. 30, 2006 for the bargain price of $2.5 million over two years.

"Sometimes - and I don't want this to come out wrong - it's like the manager has a new toy," Francona said. "Okie can get outs. You want to pitch him every day.

"The night we wore the green uniforms against the Yankees [April 20] John [Farrell] and I were laughing. We were saying, 'Okie's going to get the middle of the order out.' And he did."

But as Okajima embarked on a pace that produced a career high in appearances (66), his numbers dipped sharply. From Aug. 10 on, in his final 13 2/3 innings of the regular season, he gave up 11 earned runs (a 7.24 ERA) and finally was shelved from Sept. 15-26 with arm fatigue.

It wasn't just his arm that was tired. The drudgery of the long season in a strange land finally caught up to him.

"It was the league, the travel," Francona said. "It wasn't just a train ride to the games. It was going through three time zones. Some nights, you're getting in at 5 in the morning."

Okajima rebounded in the postseason, compiling a 2.45 ERA, with his first 9 2/3 innings scoreless.

Okajima concedes last year was a challenge. You can't just pop home to Tokyo at will when you start feeling a little homesick or crave your favorite dish. There were days when the reliever wondered if the season ever would end.

"It was hard, honestly," Okajima said. "But now I've experienced all the travel, the 162 games. I think it will be easier now."

Year 2 already has a different feel. Nothing strikes him as quite as odd. The media contingent has shrunk, and he is no longer a curiosity on his own team. He is an integral part of the bullpen, brothers in arms who won a championship together.

"Definitely, you can see the difference," said closer Jonathan Papelbon, who worked a scoreless inning of his own yesterday. "Just to get the monkey off his back of last season being his first, that's huge.

"Okie doesn't need to change anything."

While Matsuzaka and Okajima played prominent roles in Boston's world championship, the key is for them to remain consistent. Other Japanese pitchers have had success in the majors, but many of them have had a short shelf life.

"We did a lot of research on that," Francona said. "If you are really good, you have to sustain it. I don't care where you are from.

"But when you are coming [from Japan], sometimes the training methods are different. Sometimes there can be adverse effects from that. We tend to pay attention here to shoulder strength and flexibility. Their philosophy is to throw more.

"We have to intertwine those philosophies and make it work."

While Okajima already has expressed a willingness to abandon the workout regimen that made him a star in Japan, that is not what the Sox have in mind. They recognize the value of certain patterns their reliever has developed throughout his career and would prefer he maintain the rituals that are most comfortable. They also have examined which of their own traditional approaches to pitching can be altered to maximize Okajima's ability and health.

"We want Okie to throw a lot of innings," Francona said. "We're going to try not to burn those innings in the bullpen by having him get up, then sit him down, then have him get up again. That means sometimes he might have to go in when he's not ready to pitch."

While Okajima said he experienced fatigue last season, he said he would not have changed anything about how his year unfolded. Old habits die hard. Japanese pitchers are trained to be workhorses, and that component of his game is alive and well.

"I want to give this team everything I've got," he said. "I've got to do whatever I can to help the team win. I always want the ball."

Year 2 should not be much different than Year 1. Okajima is the setup man and Papelbon is the closer. Last year, they were near untouchable in spurts.

The Red Sox have a club option for 2009 on Okajima for $1.7 million. Gee. Wonder what they'll decide.

That, in any culture, is what we call a lock.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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