Okajima finding his groove
After rough start to season, lefty stepping up his game in ALCS
ST. PETERSBURG -- Perhaps lost amid the continual dominance of Jonathan Papelbon and the impressive stability of rookie Justin Masterson is another pretty good story that has unfolded in the Red Sox's bullpen.
How about the resurgence of left-hander Hideki Okajima?
Last year at this time, Okajima, making his first trek through October in the Major Leagues, was the one getting headlines.
But entering this postseason, he was a bit of an afterthought. Not anymore. Okajima has come up with clutch performances throughout this postseason, none bigger than his two shutout innings in Saturday's 4-2 victory in Game 6.
Entering Game 7, Okajima had made four appearances in this ALCS, allowing one hit and no runs over 6 1/3 innings.
"Oki's been awesome," said Masterson. "That's what he did a lot last year, and that's what he's continuing to do this year. He's given us one, two innings, just great there, whether it's been the seventh, the eighth, the sixth. It's just tremendous."
After being a contender for the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2007, Okajima got off to an inconsistent start this season. He had an epic struggle during the first half with inherited runners, which is why some might call his 2.61 ERA for the season a little misleading. Quietly, however, Okajima rallied to have a solid second half, and it has carried into the postseason.
"It seems like every time he made a mistake earlier in the year, somebody hit it," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "He'd throw a fastball and it would come back over the plate. Or he'd leave a changeup up. I also think confidence plays a huge part in what guys are doing. He was very confident. You can tell. He's going out there and throwing a lot."
When Francona saw Okajima return to the dugout following his two innings in Game 6, it was as if the lefty had his 2007 swagger back.
"It looked like he was having the time of his life [when] he left the game last night, and he was kind of, not giggly, but he knows what he's doing," Francona said. "I'm sure he's getting a lot of satisfaction out of it."
By and large, Francona never felt Okajima's struggles earlier in the year were as significant as they were portrayed in some circles.
"[Okajima] ran into a problem earlier in the year with inherited runners, and it was pretty glaring for a while," Francona said. "But other than that, last year, he almost never gave up runs. Maybe the bar was set a little bit high. To get where we are, somebody has to step up -- more than one -- and he's one of them."
Another one is Masterson. And if the righty looked a little uncomfortable in Game 6 when he opened his outing by hitting Jason Bartlett and then starting Akinori Iwamura off with a 2-0 count, he settled right down after a visit by pitching coach John Farrell.
What exactly did Farrell tell Masterson?
"I asked John, 'What did you say?' He said, '[The] food's getting cold,'" said Francona. "I don't know if he told him that or not, but whatever he told him, it was an important visit. I know a lot of times, those things can be viewed as overrated, but the game is hanging right there, and he came back and made some really good pitches. He came back and got into the count with Iwamura, and then threw a fastball located perfectly. He followed it up with two great pitches right in the middle of the order."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.