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Red Sox's Okajima relishes return to Tokyo Dome

by Jim Allen / Daily Yomiuri Sportswriter (Jan 17, 2008)

Hideki Okajima is keeping his focus on his second major league season with the Boston Red Sox, but said Wednesday he can't escape the emotion of his return to Tokyo Dome in March.

When the World Series-champion Red Sox open Major League Baseball's 2008 season with a pair of games against the Oakland Athletics on March 25 and 26, it will be a homecoming for Okajima--who began his pro career at Tokyo Dome with the Yomiuri Giants in 1995.

"I am trying not to think of it, but the fans will have big expectations and I want to do my best," Okajima told a press conference in Tokyo. "I think this is a great opportunity for us, the World Series champion Red Sox, to appeal to the Japanese fans.

"I am excited to open the season in Japan. This is really going to happen and I vow to do my best here and all season."

The left-handed reliever played 11 years for the Giants before a March 2006 trade to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters re-energized his career.

After impressing Boston scouts in 2006, Okajima signed as a free agent but quickly found himself in the shadow of the Red Sox's marquee acquisition, right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka.

"My experience after this season was markedly different from what happened to me in the past," said Okajima, who pitched in 66 games with 3-2 record and five saves. "So many more people came up and said, 'Congratulations!' On top of that I met so many new people, so it was a wonderful experience.

"I am the kind of guy who just tries to make the most of every day. I got into a good situation and...Things worked out better than I had hoped."

Although things ended well, they started poorly: Okajima's first major league pitch was hit for a home run.

"I threw a fastball on the outside part of the plate and the guy took it over the center-field fence," Okajima said. "That wasn't supposed to happen.

"I turned it over and over in my mind that night. It was a good lesson for me because I realized things were not going to be easy in the majors."

It might not have been easy, but Okajima proved to be a quick learner. Although the major league season is not longer, there are more games and much more travel.

"You don't have many days off," he said. "It seems you are playing every single day and that is tough."

Although Okajima announced at season's end he wanted to develop a new pitch, that is still on the back burner.

"Right now I'm planning to go with the same fastball, change and curve," he said. "Of course if I get hit alot, I will try something new--even though I know the first time I throw it I might get hit for a home run like last yea's first pitch."

Tickets for the Red Sox's and A's opening games and the exhibitions against the Giants and Hanshin Tigers will go on sale on Feb. 9, with pre-sale Internet registration for a chance to buy field seats beginning on Jan. 18.


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