07/06/07 12:34 AM ET
Okajima heading to All-Star Game
Japanese left-hander wins American League Final Vote
By Ian Browne / MLB.com
Okajima, who finished with more than 4.4 million votes, is the third Red Sox player to win the Final Vote competition since its inception in 2002. Johnny Damon won the inaugural AL vote that summer, and Jason Varitek -- the current captain of the Red Sox -- captured the honor in 2003.
The Fenway faithful, many of which had been clicking away on their computers in support of Okajima the last few days, had a chance to shower the lefty with applause during Thursday night's game against the Devil Rays.
Prior to the bottom of the sixth inning, the jumbo scoreboard in right-center field said the following:
"Congratulations to the Newest member of the 2007 All-Star Squad, voted in by fans from Boston to Japan, Hideki Okajima."
The crowd erupted and Okajima, standing in the bullpen, gave a plethora of bows and hand waves to the supportive audience.
"They showed him in the bullpen, the fans showed him how much they seem to appreciate him," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "This is probably one of the few places things like that happen. I was very excited and proud all the way around. He's very deserving. And he seemed genuinely touched. That's pretty neat."
As for the vote itself, Okajima got massive support from two continents.
"I appreciate all the people who voted for me," Okajima said through translator Jeff Yamaguchi. "American baseball fans and Japanese baseball fans, teammates, everybody. Big thanks to all the people who supported me."
Though Daisuke Matsuzaka was the player from Japan who got all the hype when the Red Sox acquired him over the offseason, Okajima has been every bit as valuable to the success of the team.
"You look at the numbers and it should be a no-brainer," said fellow Red Sox All-Star Josh Beckett. "He belongs on that team. The only reason he wasn't on that team before was because he's not a closer all the time. It's tough for those middle guys to get on there. It's well deserved."
Craig Shipley, vice president/international director of scouting for the Red Sox, was largely responsible for the signing of both Japanese pitchers. So, too, was Jon Deeble, who is Pacific Rim coordinator for the team.
Fittingly, Shipley and Deeble were together in Japan on other business when it was announced that Okajima had been selected for the All-Star Game, which will be played on July 10.
"Jon and I are in Japan, we're very excited that Oki made the team," Shipley said in a Thursday evening conference call. "I'm sure we're not as excited as he is, but it's a great honor. He had a great first half. It's a good story. It's already a big story here. It's a bigger story now that he's made it."
For Okajima has given the Red Sox a front-line setup man to put in front of All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon. In fact, Okajima will have plenty of familiar company in San Francisco for the All-Star festivities, where he'll be joined by teammates Papelbon, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Beckett and Mike Lowell.
The six All-Stars are the most the Sox have had since 2002, and it's the most of any MLB team this season. It's the first time that the franchise has had three pitchers on the All-Star team in the same season.
Okajima trailed Tigers right-hander Jeremy Bonderman as of late Monday afternoon but then catapulted to the top and stayed there. Also on the ballot were Twins setup man Pat Neshek, Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay and Angels right-handed starter Kelvim Escobar. Votes were conducted online at MLB.com.
Okajima, who dubbed himself a "hero in the dark" in Spring Training, has been arguably as valuable as any member of the Red Sox this season.
And even now that he's an All-Star, he would still prefer to keep a low profile.
"Still a hero in the shadow," said Okajima. "The hero is still Daisuke Matsuzaka."
A solid veteran during his 12 years in Nippon Professional Baseball, Okajima has been dominant for the Red Sox, posting a 0.88 ERA in his first 38 Major League outings. He has held opponents to a .156 average and has 8.12 strikeouts per nine innings.
"The team used me in very important situations and I was able to perform good, so that was very good that I could come up with a good performance," said Okajima.
The key to Okajima's emergence has been his changeup, which dives like a splitter. Okajima basically created the pitch while experimenting with the Major League-sized baseball in December. The baseball used in the Major Leagues is said to be slicker and a little bigger and heavier than the one used in Nippon Professional Baseball.
Okajima's emergence has been a big bright spot for the Red Sox, who have led the American League East by a comfortable margin for most of the first half.
"It's been great to see," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "He's been a vital member of the bullpen and of the team since we broke camp in April. He didn't have his curveball in Spring Training. And instead of worrying about it, he went out and further developed his changeup, and made that a plus-plus pitch for him. Now he's got his curveball back, he's locating his fastball on both sides and showing great makeup on the mound as well. So he's done an excellent job."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.