Okajima brings lessons into '08
Correcting second-half fatigue among lefty reliever's goals
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Flip the calendar back a year, and Red Sox lefty reliever Hideki Okajima was quietly developing a split-changeup that he had never used during his lengthy professional career in Japan. It was no small addition, as that pitch -- labeled the Oki-Doke by some -- propelled the rookie to the American League All-Star team and made him perhaps the biggest surprise of Boston's 2007 World Series championship season.
Does Okajima, who was one of a few players to participate in early-bird workouts at the soggy Minor League complex on Wednesday, have any similar hidden tricks up his sleeve for 2008?
"I was trying to come up with new types of pitches and just cannot do the same thing as last year, so I've tried to study new technique and new pitches," Okajima said through translator Jeff Yamaguchi on Wednesday.
The good-natured reliever was asked if he could reveal what one or some of those new pitches might be.
"Secret," Okajima said in clear English, his fingers covering his lips and a coy smile on his face.
If there is one thing Okajima learned in his first season in the Major Leagues, it's that adjustments are critical, so he's not about to divulge anything that could be a competitive advantage.
Even during a largely successful first season on American soil, Okajima learned how fierce the competition is in the Major Leagues. He also became educated in what a long season it is compared to what he was used to in Japan.
"Basically, I became tough mentally because I experienced a lot of strong sluggers in the Major Leagues," Okajima said. "It's totally different from the Japanese League. Also, the number of games are different -- 162 games, that's a lot of games."
Okajima was nearly untouchable in the first half of 2007, posting an ERA of 0.83. But after the All-Star break, that mark swelled to 4.56. Overall, Okajima pitched in 66 games for the Sox, posting a 2.22 ERA.
In hindsight, one of the smartest things the Red Sox did -- even as the AL East was still up for grabs -- was shut Okajima down from Sept. 15-26.
The result was the return of Okajima's sharpness just in time for the postseason, where he thrived again as Jonathan Papelbon's top setup man.
"I gave them everything I had, but I ran out of gas in September, so I had to rest a little bit," Okajima said. "Somehow, I got through it."
Without some of Okajima's memorable postseason performances -- Game 2 of the AL Division Series against the Angels, Game 7 of the AL Championship Series against the Indians and Game 2 of the World Series -- one has to wonder if the Red Sox still could have emerged as champs.
"It was great rest because I was able to pitch pretty good in the playoffs," Okajima said. "If I didn't take that rest, maybe I would have broken down at some point."
So Okajima's goal this year -- much like the one expressed by fellow Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka a couple of days ago -- is to be in top form late in the season.
"Especially in the first half, I'll have less practice and less number of pitches," Okajima said. "I'll try to make myself peak at the end of the season -- August, September, October."
When Okajima next takes the field for the Red Sox in the regular season, he'll be doing so under the familiar roof of the Tokyo Dome. As proud a moment as that will be for Okajima, he seems more focused on what he can do for the Red Sox in his second season.
"In my mind, the same pattern as last year is not going to work," Okajima said. "Still, my best pitch is the changeup. But if it doesn't work, I'll try to throw new pitches against hitters."
During his visit back to Japan this winter, Okajima found himself revered in a way that never existed during his years with the Yomiuri Giants or the Nippon Ham Fighters. This time around, he was a champion representing the world-renowned Boston Red Sox.
"It was great," Okajima said.
And even with a year under his belt, Okajima acknowledged that his transition to the United States -- from an off-the-field standpoint -- is ongoing.
"I'm trying to get used to it little by little, but still, my job is baseball," Okajima said.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.