'Wingman' Okajima takes flight
SAN FRANCISCO -- Truth be told, he voted for himself. At home with his wife last week, he went online and clicked next to the name "Hideki Okajima." Ten times in all.
He'd accumulated more than 4.3 million votes when the final results were tabulated and neither Roy Halladay nor Jeremy Bonderman asked for a recount. No hanging chads in Florida. Hideki Okajima was on the American League All-Star team, the 32d and final player. The lone winner of the online vote.
"I was getting a massage at Fenway Thursday afternoon and [pitching coach] John Farrell came in and said, 'Okie, congratulations.' Minutes later, Tito [manager Terry Francona] came in and said the same thing."
And so yesterday Okajima was sitting there at his own table during the 45-minute All-Star interview session on the mezzanine level of the St. Francis hotel in Union Square. Okajima was in "Red Sox row," a line of six tables for Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett, Jonathan Papelbon, Manny Ramírez (who did not show), David Ortiz, and . . . Okajima.
Hard to believe just a few short months ago some of us (me, for one) thought he was little more than a stable pony for Daisuke Matsuzaka. Okajima was signed (two years at $1.25 million per) while the Sox were working with Scott Boras in an effort to sign Matsuzaka. I could only think of Pumpkin, the friendly horse who kept Seabiscuit company during the golden days of horse racing. In an effort to placate temperamental Seabiscuit, trainer Tom Smith originally tried a goat in the next stall, then settled on Pumpkin. He cut a hole between the stalls so the horses could communicate.
I expected Okie to be Daisuke's Pumpkin. Friendly guy. Veteran presence. Mature. A Japanese-speaking wingman.
But here we are at midseason and Okajima is 2-0 with a 0.83 ERA. He has given up only 24 hits and 12 walks in 43 1/3 innings. He has 37 strikeouts. Opponents are batting .161 against him. He has been a near-perfect lefthanded setup man. He made Barry Bonds look silly, taking a third-strike fastball at Fenway Park in June. You can make a case that Okajima is the Red Sox' first-half MVP. And he's probably going to pitch tonight while $103 million man Matsuzaka watches the game at home on television.
"I didn't care what people were saying," said Okajima. "Daisuke is Daisuke and Okajima is Okajima. It's a different situation. He's a starter and I am a reliever. I just do the job for the team.
"My biggest weapon was always my curve. Last winter in training I struggled with the curve, so I tried the changeup and it was pretty good. I thought I could use it in major league baseball. I tried to hide the changeup until after the season started and that is the main reason I am getting such good results."
He was assigned jersey No. 37 (same as lefty Bill Lee), but he did not get off to an auspicious start with the Red Sox. Okajima's first pitch in the big leagues -- a fastball to Kansas City catcher John Buck -- sailed over the center-field fence at Kaufmann Stadium.
"The catcher wanted a fastball outside," said Okajima. "I have confidence with it, so I threw it in that exact spot, but he hit it so deep to right-center. I had never experienced anything like that and I thought, 'Wow, American hitters have so much power.' At that time I thought, 'Everybody is like this in America.' Well, I shouldn't throw a pure fastball, like in Japan. This doesn't work in America."
It is the only homer he has surrendered. And he had great luck with Bonds, getting the soon-to-be-home run king to look at three consecutive strikes after falling behind, 2-and-0.
"I walked the first hitter, then gave up a base hit," recalled Okajima. "John Farrell came out when I fell behind Bonds, 2-and-0, and he asked me 'Are you all right' in Japanese. I got a better feeling after that. I threw a curve for a strike. Then fastball on the outside corner. The last pitch was a fastball inside and I think he was looking for a fastball outside -- a cookie over the plate. I hope to face Bonds again in the All-Star Game."
Playing for the Red Sox helps online candidates. Johnny Damon got the fans' nod in 2002 and Jason Varitek in '03. It helps to have the support of an entire Nation, or in Okajima's case -- two nations.
"I didn't think I had a chance to make this game," he said. "I'm a reliever, and I heard relievers don't have much chance to be All-Stars. I got warm support from both Japanese and American baseball fans. This is a great honor. There has been so much support from fans and I appreciate it."
At least he won't have to carry the bullpen bag tonight. Though he's 31, Okajima is technically a rookie and the Sox veterans have strapped him with the rookie chore of lugging the bullpen bag.
"My man Okie is one of the greatest bullpen guys and teammates I've ever had," said Papelbon. "Every time someone warms up in the bullpen, he brings a towel and a bottle of water over to you. He's like our personal assistant down there."
Papelbon, Beckett, and Okajima will be together in the pen tonight, perhaps doing something to produce an AL win, which would mean if the Sox make the World Series, the first game would be at Fenway Park in late October.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.