Okajima knows nothing is guaranteed
Once a critical bullpen piece, Red Sox lefty fighting for spot
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- For quite a while, left-hander Hideki Okajima had been one of the bullpen stalwarts for the Red Sox. In fact, he was a pivotal member of the 2007 World Series championship team. He continued to get big outs in '08 and '09. But last year, particularly in the first half, things fell apart.
Okajima has spent this spring trying to put it back together, and in the next few days, he will find out if he has done enough to earn a spot on Boston's Opening Day roster.
"I'm still fighting for a position and hoping everything works out," Okajima said after firing a scoreless inning in a Minor League game on Thursday.
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This is the first time since Okajima arrived in Boston that his roster spot has been in doubt. That's a product of not only his inconsistency a year ago but how many quality arms the Red Sox have assembled this spring.
There is a full-fledged competition for the final two bullpen spots, and Okajima is in the mix, along with lefties Dennys Reyes, Rich Hill and Andrew Miller, and righties Scott Atchison, Alfredo Aceves and Matt Albers.
For a man who was closer Jonathan Papelbon's primary setup man during a championship year, battling for a roster spot could feel humbling. Okajima also has Minor League options remaining. He looked sharp on Thursday, needing just nine pitches to conclude an inning that included two strikeouts.
But the southpaw from Japan appears to have tunnel vision at the moment. He is trying to capitalize on the things he can control. One of those things is a new pitch he has added to his arsenal this spring -- a cutter.
If Okajima can get that pitch to where he wants it, he can get back to being the guy manager Terry Francona can count on against lefties and righties.
"I've been good against righties [in the past] because I've been able to throw tough pitches on them inside, but I wasn't able to do that last season, which allowed them to target my changeup," Okajima said. "This season, that's been a main goal. That's why I started throwing a cutter, which has been really good so far, and that should make my changeup that much better."
When Okajima opened the Grapefruit League season by getting shelled by the Twins, it seemed like an ominous start to his camp. Now, however, he sees that performance as a wake-up call.
"The first game I got hit, that ended up being good for me," Okajima said. "It was a good way to learn from my mistakes, and I've been improving since then. It's been a good camp."
What type of adjustments did Okajima need to make after that first game?
"My control was poor at that point during camp, so I've been really working on that, and my offspeed pitches I've been really working on, too," Okajima said. "I need to make my offspeed pitches have good control or they are pointless. That was a major area. Also, my new pitch that I've been working on has started to come together, so I'm pretty confident in that now."
The Red Sox non-tendered Okajima in December but signed him back at a lower cost in January.
Did Okajima envision he would be back with the only Major League team he's pitched for, even after the non-tender?
"That's a hard question," Okajima said. "I wanted to come back, but I'm really just glad that everything worked out the way it did. At the end of the day, it's not up to me, but I'm happy I'm back."
Within the next few days, Okajima will find out if he's really back.