“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”


 
2007-2011
HIDEKI OKAJIMA

Hideki Okajima was a Japanese professional baseball pitcher. Okajima attended Higashiyama High School and pitched in the 1994 Koshien National High School Tournament. He was drafted in the third round in 1993 by the Yomiuri Giants of the Nippon Professional Baseball League. Okajima became the team's closer in 2000–2001, before returning to his setup role in 2002. He was traded to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters right before the start of the 2006 season for two position players, and was a valuable lefty setup man for the team, pitching in 55 games, with a 2.14 ERA. The Fighters won the championship that year. In Japan, Okajima had a career record of 34–32 with a 3.36 ERA.

Okajima became a free agent in 2006, and signed a two-year, $2,500,000 deal with the Boston Red Sox.  The deal included a $1.75m club option for a third year. Okajima allowed a home run to John Buck on his very first pitch in the major leagues.  It was the 7th time in MLB history a pitcher gave up a home run on his first pitch.  However, Okajima then proceeded to hold opponents scoreless for nearly two months until the Yankees scored a run off of him via a fielder's choice on May 22.  At the start of the 2007 Red Sox season, injuries and poor performances limited the effectiveness of anticipated setup relievers Mike Timlin and Joel Piñeiro. Okajima stepped into the role of primary setup man for closer Jonathan Papelbon and quickly became one of the most dominant relievers in the major leagues. Through the first two months of the season, he cemented himself as the top setup man in the Red Sox bullpen garnering the American League Rookie of the Month for April.  His scoreless streak from April to May 2007 was the longest by a Red Sox left-hander since Bruce Hurst 20 years prior.

Okajima earned his first MLB save on April 20, 2007, against the New York Yankees. After getting a save in his first appearance during a Red Sox–Yankees series, Okajima compared the experience to winning the pennant.

On May 17th, Okajima faced the heart of the Detroit Tigers order for the second time in one day to earn his second major league save.  He made the All-Star team as the winner of the final vote, but did not play in the game; he is the third Red Sox player to make the team this way.  Following the All-Star break, Okajima continued to pitch solid and reliable relief innings occasionally closing games for the Sox as they held their place at the top of the AL East. However, the rigors of the MLB season began to catch up with him in the later stages of the season and he began to struggle culminating in a career-high four-run meltdown in a game against the Yankees on September 14th. Red Sox management decided to shut him down following this outing to allow him to relieve the physical and mental fatigue of the longer American season.  On his return during the final stages of the regular season, Okajima regained his sharp early season form, pitching scoreless frames to establish himself again as an integral part of the dominant Red Sox bullpen as they headed into the postseason. He was selected to the 2007 Topps Major League Rookie All-Star Team. The selection was the result of the 49th annual Topps balloting of Major League managers.

Okajima's performance really returned in Game 2 of the World Series against the Colorado Rockies, in which he pitched 2 perfect innings in relief of Curt Schilling, striking out four at Fenway Park. He became the first Japanese born pitcher to play in the World Series.

On December 3, 2010, he was non-tendered by the Red Sox, making him a free agent. However, both parties agreed on a one year deal on January 2.  Okajima did not make the 2011 Opening Day roster, starting the season in Triple-A Pawtucket. On April 18th, he was called up to the Red Sox. On May 20th, he was designated for assignment.  On May 24th, he cleared waivers, and he accepted his assignment to the Red Sox's AAA affiliate, the Pawtucket Red Sox.

The New York Yankees signed Okajima to a minor league contract on December 28, 2011. He also received an invitation to spring training. However, Okajima failed his physical at the beginning of spring training resulting in his release. He agreed to terms on a one-year contract with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks on February 26, 2012.