Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Okajima "our star of the game"

There were some nitwits who wondered back in April if the Red Sox were going to have to figure out how to fix Hideki Okajima or replace him in the bullpen. Good thing Terry Francona never listens to nitwits.

Once again, the Red Sox beat the Yankees in a game that could have gone either way all the way until the end. Once again, it was the Red Sox bullpen that made the difference. On Wednesday, it was Okajima.

Ramon Ramirez allowed twice as many home runs in Wednesday's seventh inning (two) as he had all season. He then allowed a two-out single to Jorge Posada on a changeup that hung just a little too far up in the zone. With lefty slugger Hideki Matsui coming to the plate, Francona had to go get Okajima with a runner on the bases -- the type of situation in which the reliever repeatedly melted down in April and May last season.

This year, though, he's thrived with runners on base. Of the 15 runners he's inherited, just three have scored. On top of that, he's actually pitching better with runners on base (.486 opponents' OPS) than with the bases empty (.647 opponents' OPS).

Okajima didn't mess around with Matsui. He threw a curveball for a strike, two fastballs well off the plate, a splitter down for another strike, a fastball in on the hands, and then a splitter down and away that Matsui waved at and missed to retire the side.

That wasn't it for the night, though. Okajima walked Nick Swisher to lead off the eighth inning, and Melky Cabrera sacrificed pinch-runner Brett Gardner to second. The tying run was in scoring position with just one out.

Derek Jeter, a righthanded hitter, was coming to the plate. Francona, though, wasn't coming to the mound.

"Usually, Francona switches to the righty against the righthanders, but he didn't change it, so I wanted to show what I can do," Okajima said through a team translator.

Said Francona, "Oki seemed to be throwing the ball pretty well, and (Johnny) Damon's on deck. Sometimes it's not just a certain matchup. How many times have we seen Jeter fight a ball off to right field on a good pitch, and now we've got a tie game and we've burned another pitcher. I thought Oki was a good option, and he proved us right. He made some great pitches."

Okajima went right after Jeter, too -- and he buried a splitter in the dirt on a 1-2 pitch to retire the hitter who soon will be the Yankees' all-time hits leader.

Damon was next. Okajima threw the former Red Sox outfielder a 2-1 fastball on the outside corner that Damon fouled down the left-field line and into the seats. His fifth pitch was another fastball, this time well off the outside corner, and Damon swung and missed. Strike three.

"By far, no questions asked, Hideki was our star of the game," said Jonathan Papelbon, who would close it out in the ninth. "He came in and basically took over the ballgame and did what he did, and that's the big reason why we won the game. There's no doubt about it."

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