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Red Sox left with a decision

Reyes, Okajima among candidates

HIDEKI OKAJIMA HIDEKI OKAJIMA
By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / March 19, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Dennys Reyes has pitched for 10 teams over parts of 14 seasons in the majors. He learned long ago not to sweat the decisions teams make at the end of spring training.

There’s always another team out there that can use a lefthanded reliever.

“I’m not worried,’’ Reyes said yesterday. “I know I’ll be pitching somewhere.’’

But Theo Epstein and Terry Francona are paid to worry about such decisions, and as the Red Sox construct their bullpen, picking a lefthanded reliever could be difficult.

Hideki Okajima, 35, has been with the team for four years but pitched so poorly last season that the Red Sox released him Dec. 2 rather than risk salary arbitration.

Once an All-Star, Okajima’s deceptive delivery no longer puzzles American League hitters. He had a 4.50 earned run average last season with opponents hitting .314.

The average velocity of his fastball was just over 86 miles hour, meaning that when Okajima missed his spot, trouble ensued.

But being lefthanded in baseball means never having to say goodbye. The Sox signed Okajima again a month later, but at a 36 percent pay cut.

The Red Sox also signed lefthanded relievers Rich Hill, Andrew Miller, and Reyes to minor league contracts, lining up competition for Okajima.

Reyes, 33, has emerged as the biggest threat, both in girth and potential. Despite arriving late to camp because of a visa issue, the 250-pound Reyes has lived up to his reputation for reliability.

“He’s been just about what you expect from him, a 14-year veteran. He knows how to move his baseball around,’’ pitching coach Curt Young said. “He’s been around a while, he knows what he’s doing, and he knows how to get lefties out.’’

Reyes can opt out of his contract on Friday, although that deadline “is flexible,’’ according to Epstein.

Reyes threw a scoreless sixth inning in yesterday’s 8-3 loss to the Tigers in the first game of a split-squad doubleheader.

After getting lefty hitters Don Kelly and Alex Avila on ground balls, Reyes walked Scott Thorman before retiring Austin Jackson on a ground out. Through six appearances, Reyes has allowed one earned run on four hits, with two walks and five strikeouts.

Okajima also had a test yesterday, entering a 1-1 game in the fifth inning with two runners on and no outs.

After a successful bunt, he induced a ground ball that was booted by Adrian Gonzalez, allowing a run to score. With two outs, Okajima left a changeup up in the strike zone that Ryan Raburn sent deep over the fence in left.

Okajima has given up six runs (four earned) on nine hits in six innings this spring. Although he has a major league contract, Okajima has minor league options and could be retained in Triple A.

The decision could come down to whether the Sox want to start the season with a classic lefty specialist, a pitcher who comes in specifically for one batter. Reyes has made a career of that; Okajima has not.

Gonzalez has faced Reyes seven times, collecting three hits and striking out four times.

“He’s got a really good two-seamer, a fastball that goes down and in on you,’’ Gonzalez said. “He’s got a really good cutter down and away. He can command his sinker and his cutter to both sides of the plate.

“He’s pretty good going sinker, cutter, sinker, cutter, and moving back and forth. As a hitter, you don’t know what to expect and both are kind of running off the plate. He makes you chase. Both of them look like strikes out of his hand most of the time. Then you foul it off or hit a dribbler. He knows how to pitch.’’

Okajima is better suited for a full inning. But with Daniel Bard, Bobby Jenks, and Dan Wheeler around, those opportunities may not arise often, particularly in close games.

“When Okie first got here, he was good against everybody, which was quite a weapon,’’ Francona said. “Last year, righties gave him a tough time. I think he’s throwing the ball pretty well this spring. If Okie’s throwing like he can, he’s not a specialist. He’s not a true left-on-left guy, even through he really did well against lefties last year.’’

Francona said earlier this month that Okajima is competing with himself more than with any other player. So far this spring, that competition is not going well.

“I know what I’m capable of,’’ Okajima said through an interpreter. “I need to get back to that. I’ve been working hard. What happens after that is up to the team.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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