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Red Sox Notebook

Okajima returns to ’pen, but spot is filled

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / August 29, 2010

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — For most of the season, the Red Sox haven’t had a reliable lefthander in the bullpen. Hideki Okajima, a mainstay the last three seasons, struggled. Dustin Richardson couldn’t pick up the slack. But with the addition of Felix Doubront in the bullpen, the Red Sox now have a lefty they can rely on in late innings and in big situations.

That’s why, even with yesterday’s return of Okajima from the disabled list with a hamstring injury, it will be Doubront the Sox turn to in key spots.

“Right now I think we see [Okajima] as the lefthander that we look to match up early,’’ pitching coach John Farrell said. “Until he gets some innings under his belt at this level again and puts some consistent performances together, I think he’ll work his way back to the role that he was in before.

“But the emergence of Felix has given us that lefthander that we feel good about that’s got power stuff that can get both lefties and righties out. Right now, that’s where Okajima would slot in, whether it’s to match up in the sixth inning or possibly go through a left-right-left situation to start an inning in the middle of the game.’’

In other words, the rookie is more reliable now than the veteran. Since he was promoted three weeks ago, Doubront, who came in with one out in the eighth inning last night and escaped undamaged, has a 3.36 ERA with 12 strikeouts and just two walks in 8 2/3 innings. He has allowed a .207 average to opposing hitters. Compare that with Okajima’s 5.85 ERA and .410 average allowed this season.

“[Doubront’s] handled himself like he’s been up here for a long time,’’ Manny Delcarmen said. “He’s doing it the right way. I see him as more of a power lefty, throws hard, sink, and has a good curveball. He’s definitely come in in some key situations. He’s 22 years old and he’s acting like he’s been up here for 10 years now. So it’s pretty cool. I like seeing guys like that.’’

Overall, the Sox’ bullpen has shown improvement of late, allowing its first run since Aug. 20 (16 2/3 innings) when Scott Atchison gave up Dan Johnson’s homer in the 10th inning.

“When you have the depth to be able to match up earlier in the game, not just because they’re lefthanded or righthanded, but to have the quality that you can go to in a situation, there may be more of a willingness to do that rather than let the starter face somebody the third or fourth time through,’’ Farrell said. “It goes back to the old adage, the more quality and more above-average players you have, the better off you’ll be as a team.’’

And, of course, the Sox would be very happy if Okajima could figure things out. But they can’t count on that, and that is where Doubront has come up big.

“What a big lift if [Okajima] can give us [quality performances],’’ manager Terry Francona said. “We’ve leaned on him for a couple of years and he’s been such a big weapon for us. That would be really welcome.’’

Shutting the door
The Sox are also feeling good about the back end of their bullpen. Jonathan Papelbon hasn’t allowed a run in his previous six outings (six innings). Setup man Daniel Bard hasn’t allowed a run in his last six games (7 2/3 innings). And more importantly, the Sox have managed their workloads, as Bard no longer leads the league in appearances, which he did earlier in the season. “We’re going to rely heavily on them,’’ Farrell said. “The one thing that we pay close attention to are the total appearances by any one of our relievers. It’s good to see that while Daniel was at the top in the first half of the season or first two-thirds of the season, he’s probably 10 off the lead now. Not to say that that is our guide, but it shows that we spread the workload around, not overusing any one individual. We’ve got to be careful and cautious that they’re well rested and can bring their best stuff to the mound when they’re called upon.’’ Also helping is that the starters are going deeper into games.

Medical call
Jason Varitek continues to show progress with his broken foot. Varitek is likely to remain with the team throughout the road trip, then possibly head to a rehab assignment after being examined by the medical staff. “He ran hard [Friday],’’ Francona said. “That was the first day, though, because we had backed him off. Done all his catching drills. He’s done everything, but [Friday] was back to running hard. I don’t think he feels like he has anything to do differently catching or moving around behind the plate. Just needs to do it now for a little while and build up some stamina, some endurance, and we’ll get him checked again. He’s been catching bullpens. He’s been dropping and blocking balls, moving laterally.’’

A neat catch
Not lost in the loss was an incredible catch by Ryan Kalish in centerfield that is likely to be the hit of highlight reels. With two outs in the second inning and Matt Joyce on first after walking, B.J. Upton blasted the ball toward the right-centerfield gap. Kalish, who was playing in dead center, seemed to have no chance of getting to the ball. But he dived flat-out and, using great extension, caught the ball. He followed with a neat somersault for an acrobatic play. “From my viewpoint, I saw that he was going to intersect with the ball,’’ Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s a great play.’’ . . . Adrian Beltre was left limping after a 10th-inning infield hit that he beat out. He remained in the game for the bottom of the inning, but it was clearly bothering him. “His hammy’s a little tight,’’ Francona said. “He’s a little sore. We’ll see how he does. He’s a pretty tough guy.’’ . . . The 26 scoreless innings streak by Clay Buchholz was the longest in the American League since Cleveland’s Cliff Lee threw 27 straight in 2008. The home run by Upton was the first earned run Buchholz had allowed since the fifth inning on Aug. 6 against the Yankees, a stretch of 30 1/3 innings. In three starts against the Rays this season, Buchholz is 1-1 with a 0.98 ERA . . . Victor Martinez went 4 for 5 last night, and has gone 7 for 9 with three homers and has scored four of the Sox’ five runs in the first two games of the series.

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

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