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Set up for success

Healthy Saito could benefit the Red Sox

Sox reliever Takashi Saito gets in some throwing in the outfield yesterday. Sox reliever Takashi Saito gets in some throwing in the outfield yesterday. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Nick Cafardo
February 23, 2009
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - It could be one of those signings when a team doesn't spend much or expect much, or it could be one of the Red Sox' best moves of the offseason.

What if Takashi Saito returns to his form of 2007 with the Dodgers, when he had 39 saves and was a National League All-Star? OK, with Jonathan Papelbon around Saito's not going to have 40 saves, but if his balky elbow holds up and he can excel in a setup role, Boston will have something.

The 39-year-old righthander wears No. 24; he asked Manny Ramírez for permission to wear it before signing with the Sox. Like most Japanese pitchers, Saito is very courteous, and he said he made sure to get Ramírez's permission because of his deep respect for his former Dodgers teammate.

"Manny said, 'No problem,' " said Saito through interpreter Masa Hoshino. "He said 24 and 99 are both very lucky numbers and to take one of them. I am very appreciative of the Red Sox for allowing me to wear the number."

Saito has no illusions of being the closer in Boston, and he knows one of his biggest challenges is adapting to a setup role he's not had before. When he came back from elbow issues last September, the Dodgers used him to close, but then he became a mop-up man.

"Just before the playoffs, and even after we clinched, I came in to close a few games," he said. "I think there were some difficulties in communication, but I had prepared to be a closer but I'd be brought into games and situations where it was 10-0 and I wouldn't perform really well. At the time, I don't know if I felt disappointed . . . but I moved beyond that, and if the team had advanced to the World Series I would have been ready to come back in.

"Of course I understand the situations that I come in will be different and I know I will have to adjust to it mentally and physically, but right now is the time to start making those adjustments," he said. "It's an area where I can't spare any effort, giving my all to get prepared for my new role so that I can contribute to the Red Sox."

Pitching coach John Farrell is still getting a feel for Saito and how he prepares in spring training. He's been trying to find out what his camps were like with the Dodgers and has come to the conclusion Saito gradually builds up to game-time shape. The important thing is that he's pain-free.

Saito's elbow will be tricky sledding for the Sox because, according to sources familiar with his medical condition, there isn't much left in the joint. If Saito weren't 39 he'd probably have had surgery, but if he were to sit out a year he'd then be making a comeback at 40, and that's hard to do.

So far there's been no discussion about putting Saito on a John Smoltz-like plan in which the Sox hold him back when the season starts and let him take his time getting ready. Saito doesn't seem to feel he needs that, either, and he felt if the Dodgers had made it to the Series last season he would have been ready to contribute.

"In talking to him, he has a good feel for his body," Farrell said. "His intensity, which is controlled right now, is consistent with what he's done in the past. As he approaches game time, his consistency and velocity will rise.

"There's been no ill effects from what he went through last year and there's been a good gauge the last 10 days [that] he's done well physically. The one thing we've acknowledged is the time he missed last year because of the [elbow] issue. If there's ever a time he needs a day, we would build that in, but there's been no request on his part at the moment."

So the plan is to mix Saito with Justin Masterson, Manny Delcarmen, Ramon Ramirez, and Hideki Okajima in that middle relief/setup role, which allows the Sox to be very specific regarding matchups. Saito's career numbers are off the charts: He's allowed a .182 batting average and only 52 walks in 189 2/3 innings. Catcher Josh Bard recently said Saito's stuff was among the top five in the NL, that he has pinpoint control, "and he never makes a mistake."

Saito speaks English better than any of Boston's Japanese pitchers, and he's enjoyed the fact that "there's a lot of Japanese staff and the players communicate really well here on and off the field. So far everybody has treated me well and I feel very comfortable. I'm very impressed with what I've seen."

One of the other issues will be transitioning to the American League; Saito has begun to get some feedback from coaches and players.

"In meetings with the managers and coaches, we talked about some of the differences," he said. "One of the examples that came up today was in the AL there'll be less bunts in the early innings, even in bunt situations, but fundamentally it's baseball and it will be the same except the pitchers don't stand in the batter's box."

Saito believes he'll be fine.

When asked how much he thinks he has left, he said, "That's looking too far into the future. Talking three or four years down the line, I don't have the luxury to look that far ahead. But at least this year I'm going to give it my all and I'm going to let go the title of closer because what I really want is a world championship and I feel I picked a team that's closest to attaining that goal. Right now, my shoulder and my elbow feel good."

Saito said he's enjoyed every minute of being a major leaguer and wished he'd made the jump sooner.

"Every day is just a dream for me," he said. "Just looking around here and seeing my teammates. Amazing pitchers like Papelbon and a list too numerous to mention. So I'm very happy to be here. Very excited. But at the same time I can't just be happy to be here.

"Every day I ask myself, 'How can I perform better and how can I contribute better to the team?' Even if I wasn't quite as happy as I am now, I think that the challenge of making it in the majors was a goal of mine for a long time. I don't think I'd ever feel regret coming over."

If Saito has a good season, the only regret might come from the Dodgers, who allowed him to get away.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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