Entering his third season in Major League Baseball, Boston's ace setup man prepares for his final year of his current Red Sox contract.
* * *
As Boston Red Sox reliever Hideki Okajima prepares for his third season of Major League Baseball, he knows that what he does over the next nine months will have a significant impact on his future.
"My contract is in its final year with the Red Sox, and I hope I can re-sign with the team," Okajima said earlier this week after workout in Tokyo. "However, I'll go anywhere they'll let me play baseball. Family support in the major leagues is actually quite good, even compared with Japanese ballclubs, so staying in the majors will be the most probable choice."
Okajima was working out at Sophia University, the alma mater of his wife, TV announcer Yuka Kurihara, with whom he has two kids. After a quick jog to a local shrine, Okajima went through a regimen of stretching exercises, followed by some light throwing practice.
Okajima has had an interesting offseason, highlighted by his running of the Honolulu Marathon in mid-December, an undertaking the Red Sox were not particularly enamored with. His time of 6 hours, 8 minutes, 35 seconds, in his first marathon was hardly noteworthy, but it did get the attention of Boston brass, with one team official telling the Boston Globe "the Sox were not pleased and would have discouraged him had the team been apprised of his decision."
Okajima came through the event no worse for wear, however, and said that his training is on schedule. He took a month off after the MLB season, doing some long-distance running to prepare for the Honolulu race, but now he's getting ready to ratchet it up a few notches.
"Right now, I would say my condition is around 50 percent," said the left-hander, who turned 33 on Christmas Day. "Once again, I will be training in Australia, but not in Cairns like I usually do. This year I will be going to the Gold Coast. The training will go on for about two weeks, from mid-January until the beginning of February."
Okajima, who joined his more famous compatriot Daisuke Matsuzaka with the Red Sox for the 2007 season, was a revelation his first year in the bigs, often overshadowing Dice-K in his role as setup man for closer Jonathan Papelbon. Although his first pitch as a major-leaguer was knocked out of the park, Okajima would not allow another run for nearly two months after that--a stretch of 202/3 scoreless innings--using his head-dropping, no-look windup and his baffling "Oki-Doki" screwball-changeup to post a 2.22 ERA while compiling 27 holds and whiffing 63 batters over 69 innings that first season.
The only downside was that the longer MLB season took a bit of a toll on Okajima, causing manager Terry Francona to rest him briefly in September with a "tired arm." Nevertheless, he was so popular in Boston that fans voted him onto the American League All-Star team in his rookie year--not bad for a guy with a very average fastball who had a steady if not spectacular career in Japan with the Yomiuri Giants and Nippon-Ham Fighters.
In 2008, Okajima was not quite as impressive, although he did put up decent numbers again with a 2.61 ERA and 23 holds while striking out 60 in 62 innings of work.
Heading into the 2009 campaign, Okajima--who was recently passed over for Japan's World Baseball Classic squad--said he will stick with what got him here.
"This year, I'm not thinking of finding a new type of pitch," said the Kyoto native. "I will just focus on some of the pitches I have now, like my curveball, cut-fastball and slider."
After working up a sweat on a chilly January morning, Okajima no doubt aspires to taste a little October champagne again, like he did in '07 when the Red Sox swept the Colorado Rockies in the World Series. Last season, the Sox fell in seven games to the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Championship Series, which left a decidedly more bitter taste, even though Okajima did more than his part by giving up just one hit and no runs in five appearances in the series.
"It was a pity that we could not make it back to the World Series (in 2008)," lamented Okajima. "To make that happen, pitchers like Daisuke and I have to work hard."