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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Okajima cleans up in spotless fashion

There isn't anything subtle about Hideki Okajima anymore.

The numbers are too good, the buzz from the opposition is growing too loud, and the scoreless-inning streak continues to grow quietly, steadily, convincingly.

He has slipped so seamlessly into his role as a reliable setup man that he has done the unthinkable: He has made veteran Mike Timlin's frustrating and disheartening injuries a moot point, for now.

Think about that. Timlin has long been this staff's relief workhorse. In other years, a prolonged stint for him on the disabled list would have been a daily cause for angst, or at least some serious hand-wringing. But Okajima has provided the Red Sox -- and Timlin -- with a worry-free alternative. He has been close to untouchable since that fateful Opening Day debut when his first major league pitch was banged out of the park by Kansas City's John Buck. He has been a critical link that has held this pitching staff together, in perfect unison from starter to reliever to closer.

Okajima hasn't given up a run in 20 2/3 innings, has retired 56 of the last 65 batters he's faced, and has submitted a Papelbonesque ERA of 0.44.

His two appearances against the Tigers yesterday comprised his most impressive outings. He came on in the eighth inning of the opening game of the doubleheader with the task of protecting Julian Tavarez's hard-earned 2-1 advantage. He faced, in order, the dangerous Placido Polanco, who leads the American League in multi-hit games, the positively frightening Gary Sheffield, and the productive Magglio Ordonez.

Here's how it went. Polanco flied out harmlessly to right field. Sheffield, the guy with the vicious swing who looks amazing even when he whiffs, struck out swinging, and looked really bad. Ordonez didn't fare much better, popping out to Kevin Youkilis to end yet another uneventful inning for Japan's prized lefthander.

You know the rest. Jonathan Papelbon came on in the ninth and snuffed out any chance the Tigers had of conjuring a rally. Together, Oki and Pap, which sounds like some kind of corny kids' show involving puppets and overalls, were lethal.

The Tigers know all about Boston's young closer. They saw Papelbon weave his magic last season. But this new guy, who is 31 years old and cruised into town well under the Dice-K radar, has left them shaking their heads.

Just listen.

"He's good -- real good," Sheffield gushed. "The way he pulls up his leg, it looks like he's going to tilt to the side, but then he comes over the top with the curveball. Then he comes back and throws the fastball in there, and it's nasty. Then he comes at you with his forkball, which is even nastier.

"He's one of the most impressive lefties I've ever seen."

Wow. Now that's saying something. Who knew Sheffield was capable of such hyperbole, particularly after only one at-bat against Okajima? The former pinstripe slugger, who has been in town all week romancing Boston fans with book signings and verbal bouquets about what could have been had the Yankees allowed him to escape to Fenway as a free agent, said what Okajima is throwing is "stuff I have never seen before from anybody.

"Anyone who can pitch with that kind of motion is going to have a lot of success," Sheffield added. "I wonder if he was ever a starter. With that kind of stuff, he should be one."

We checked with the gracious Japanese media who cover both Okajima and countryman Daisuke Matsuzaka. They assured me Okajima has never been anything but a reliever. They also reminded me his ERA in Japan last season was a career-low 2.14.

Apprised of Sheffield's comments, Okajima smiled broadly, then said through an interpreter, "No, it's not true what he is saying. I'm nowhere near one of the best. In Japan, there are a bunch of pitchers better than me."

The Sox -- not to mention the Yankees -- would sure like to meet them.

We have long since dismissed as groundless the theory that Okajima was brought into the fold solely to provide company for Dice-K, whom Sox owners wanted to make sure felt comfortable and happy here. While it certainly did not hurt that they speak the same language and enjoy the same cultural customs, Boston's crack baseball staff felt certain Okajima could throw strikes.

We had to take their word for it. What else could we do? We had numbers that suggested he was one of the elite setup men in Nippon Professional Baseball, but how did that translate to US major league baseball?

We had no idea. All we had to go on were hype and hope from across the world.

Okajima conceded last night he would not be off to such an impressive start if not for daily assurances from Matsuzaka.

"Daisuke is very important to me," Okajima said. "We wanted to show our skills to American baseball fans.

"I could not do this alone. I have welcomed Daisuke's support. He has made it comfortable for me here."

Expectations can be tricky. Dice-K was so widely trumpeted that we had him penciled in to win 20 games, the Cy Young, and Game 7 of the World Series. No pressure, of course.

Okajima? Hmm. Let me check my notes. How does "decent bullpen depth" sound?

It remains to be seen if Okajima can continue this pace. We all know what a benefit it is for a new pitcher in the majors the first time around, before serious hitters have a chance to dissect his stuff over and over again on tape. Yet Papelbon insists this is no fluke. He's watched his teammate closely and he's amazed at the number of ways he can flummox a batter.

"The thing with Oki is he's got three pitches," Papelbon explained. "And he can throw all three of them for strikes any time he wants. When you can do that as a reliever, you are going to be very successful."

Consider the ninth inning of the second game last night, when Okajima was summoned to close out a 4-2 win. He again faced the meat of Detroit's order -- Polanco, Sheffield, and Ordonez.

This time Polanco flied harmlessly to center, Sheffield grounded to third, and Ordonez grounded to third to end the game. Okajima earned the save, his second of the season.

When Japanese reporters asked him about facing the same three batters in both games, the congenial pitcher answered with a smile, "I did?"

He was greeted with laughter. He laughed along with them, then insisted again he did not notice who was at the plate.

"I don't look at the batter," he said. "I look at the catcher's mitt."

Later he was asked to describe his relationship with Papelbon and the interaction they've had since he joined the Red Sox.

"Not much," Okajima answered. "We can't really talk to each other."

No matter. Language barriers can be broken over time.

And, if all goes to plan, the Oki and Pap show should be booked through the summer.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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