It was a joke. Or was it?
"I have to pitch with nobody on," Hideki Okajima said, as translated by Jeff Yamaguchi. Then Okajima laughed.
But while he was being lighthearted, Okajima has had far more serious problems with runners on base than either he or the Red Sox would like to admit. After being nearly impeccable in that situation last season, Okajima has been merely mortal. He has allowed 11 of his 14 inherited runners to score, culminating in Jay Payton's game-winning grand slam Wednesday afternoon in Baltimore.
Though Okajima avoided the media after the game, he discussed his trouble with runners on base yesterday, expressing disappointment with his performance, but also acceptance.
"I feel a little bit uncomfortable with runners behind me, especially when they are not my runners," Okajima said before the Red Sox-Brewers game at Fenway Park was rained out, to be made up as part of a separate-admission doubleheader this afternoon (3:55) and tonight (8:35). "Little bit uncomfortable. All the coaches, manager know I am not successful with a runner behind [me]. So why use me?"
While Okajima was clearly serious when he said he did not feel entirely settled while pitching with inherited runners on, Yamaguchi indicated he was joking in the latter part of the statement. But there is still the fact that with men on base, Okajima is allowing opponents a .308 average, with eight hits and 12 runs scored in 26 at-bats. He has struck out eight in such situations. Last season, opponents hit just .168 with men on base, with 30 strikeouts in 113 at-bats.
"I think nobody likes it," Okajima said. "Nobody wants to be in that kind of situation. But that's my job. I've got to do it. Try to do the best. But I am not getting good results all the time. If I can get out of the jam, it is lucky. It is all luck."
As for last season, he said, "Good things are not going to stay the same forever."
"It still comes down to execution of pitches," pitching coach John Farrell said. "Obviously, the split he threw the other day to Payton was not a pitch that ended up where he intended. I go back to the pitch he threw against [Marcus] Thames in Detroit. We were trying to go down and away, and [Thames] went out and hooked a fastball through the hole for two runs.
"He's well aware of the inherited runners situation, as we all are. But I think the one thing we continue to communicate to him is we haven't lost confidence in his abilities."
Neither has Okajima. Even though certain situations haven't turned out as Okajima or Farrell or the team had hoped, the Sox will continue to use the lefthander in such cases. Perhaps with a few adjustments, though.
"The one thing we have noticed is just the late finish and depth to his split that he showed so consistently last year has been, at times, inconsistent," Farrell said. "That's the one thing in early work, in his throwing program, that we work on, making sure that the grip to that pitch is still as consistent as it was. His mind-set and attitude, how he goes about executing that pitch, is one thing that we continue to review.
"While that pitch became such a weapon for him last year, that's at times been a little elusive for him."
Familiarity might also be part of the problem. While Okajima was new to virtually the entire American League last season, he's been around long enough that most hitters have either seen him firsthand or have extensive video to review. So adjustments have been made - perhaps leading to some of Okajima's struggles.
Still, when asked if he had spoken to the coaching staff about his discomfort on the mound with runners on, Okajima smiled. "No, I have not talked to them," he said. "Maybe I should talk to them."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.