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Birds still pecking away at Okajima

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / June 11, 2008

On nights that the Orioles fill the role of opposing team, perhaps Hideki Okajima should remain hidden away in the bullpen, far from those dangerous bats from Baltimore.

It was nearly a month ago, back on May 14, that Okajima took the ball with two outs in the seventh inning in Camden Yards. The bases were loaded, a situation in which Okajima has struggled this season, allowing inordinate numbers of inherited runners to score (11 of 14). It was Jay Payton who did the honors then, his grand slam carrying the Orioles.

Okajima got a "clean" inning last night - and a 6-4 lead - and that was a good sign for him, as was the strikeout looking of Freddie Bynum to begin the seventh.

But that was it. Okajima failed to retire another batter, walking Brian Roberts, then allowing a double to Nick Markakis. He walked Melvin Mora to load the bases, likely giving the crowd a bit of deja vu. Payton wasn't the batter, but Aubrey Huff did quite nicely himself. Huff singled to center field, scoring two runners to knot the score at 6-6, and the Orioles went on to a 10-6 victory.

"He had a hard time getting the ball down," Jason Varitek said. "Whether it was curveball, changeup, or his fastball. He was just more so off the mark. We haven't seen that much from him. It's kind of been a rarity for us.

"He's had two rough outings against Baltimore. That's pretty much it. He didn't have a good feel, couldn't get the ball down in situations where he needed to."

He was relieved by Manny Delcarmen, but Delcarmen allowed Kevin Millar to send a sacrifice fly to center to score the Orioles' seventh run (a taste of his own inherited-runner medicine for Okajima). That brought the Orioles to the lead and, eventually, the win, a rare occurrence for a visiting team at Fenway Park this season.

Against Baltimore, Okajima now has a 13.50 ERA (five earned runs in 5 1/3 innings). Against the rest of baseball? It's just 0.40 (one earned run in 22 2/3 innings). Including his appearance against the Orioles June 2, Okajima has given up the lead in all three chances he's had against them. That's not a lot of love from Charm City.

And so nine minutes after the game concluded, at 9:33 p.m., Okajima walked out of the Red Sox clubhouse. He declined to talk, through a team spokesman, and headed out the door to the steamy evening with interpreter Jeff Yamaguchi in tow.

"You've got to wait him out," said Orioles manager Dave Trembley. "You can't chase pitches off the plate. You've got to make him throw it over. When you get behind in the count, you've got to shorten up your swing. You've got to use the other side of the diamond. You try to pull the ball, you play right into his hands."

If that's their strategy, it's working. As difficult as Okajima has been for the rest of the league - both last season and this - the Orioles have figured him out.

"I believe that when he executes his pitches, he gives anybody fits," Varitek said. "He had a day where he'd try and get a ball down and away, throw the ball up. Try to throw a split, he threw it up. That hasn't happened very much."

That was echoed by manager Terry Francona, who said, "He was up with a lot of pitches and behind in the count." And that combination never ends up with very good results for a pitcher.

So just when Okajima seemed as if he might be putting it together, things fell apart again. He had allowed runs in just one of his last eight appearances, and just two of his last 17, though that does not count all those runners belonging to other relievers.

Last night, they all belonged to him. That was how he ended up with a pitching line that included three earned runs and just one out. That's not good for the ERA, which soared from 1.95 to 2.89 in a single evening.

As to why Okajima threw more curveballs than splitters, Varitek wasn't offering much.

"Just to mix things up a little," he said. "You can ask me after we're done with Baltimore."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com

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