PAWTUCKET – Nary a trace of resentment could be found in Hideki Okajima’s tone when asked if he felt he was bypassed by the Red Sox on Friday. Boston selected Felix Doubront – a pitcher who was shutdown during spring training with left forearm inflammation – to fill the club’s left-handed need in the bullpen after designating the ineffective Dennys Reyes for assignment.
“No,” was the straightforward answer Okajima came back with through interpreter Jeff Cutler after posed said question.
The Sox’ decision to go with Doubront may have been understandable had Okajima struggled in his outing Thursday night for Pawtucket. However, that wasn’t the case. Okajima zipped through the eighth inning, needing 13 pitches to set Rochester down in order. It was the type of outing that was reminiscent of when Okajima was the No. 1 lefty option in Boston’s bullpen, not the hurler who struggled last year en route to posting a career-worst 4.50 ERA in 56 appearances.
“I was able to show what I can do, but it’s still very early,” said Okajima. “I just need to continue what I did (on Thursday), which is all I can do at the moment.”
“He was quick and efficient and pounded the bottom half of the zone,” added Pawtucket manager Arnie Beyeler. “He threw a couple of really good changeups that were surprising. I haven’t been around him that much, everyone I’ve talked to has raved about his changeup.”
“He got ahead of hitters,” said PawSox pitching coach Rich Sauveur about the main thing he took away from Okajima’s outing. “He’s not going to overpower anybody, but the thing is that he can throw strikes and change speeds, which is the form Boston wants him to get back to. Obviously he has an idea how to pitch.
“Obviously they had to make an adjustment up there because the lefty they had wasn’t getting people out,” added Sauveur. “Don’t count Okajima out, though. He can pitch.”
The burning question is whether Okajima’s experience is negated by Doubront’s youthful exuberance – at least at this particular moment. According to FanGraphs.com, Doubront’s fastball averaged 91 miles per hour last year while Okajima registered 86.3. Certainly that’s enough of a disparity to think that the scales tip in Doubront’s favor – irregardless if his spring training was short-circuited or not.
“We love Doubront, but he wasn’t ready to pitch when we left [spring training],” is what Red Sox manager Terry Francona told reporters in Boston upon activating Doubront from the 15-day disabled list.
The other item regarding the Doubront-in, Okajima-not shuffle has to do the long range forecast Boston has for Doubront. The Red Sox have spoken on many occasions that Doubront’s future lies in the starting rotation, not in the bullpen. Is Boston temporarily shelving those plans, or does Boston believe that Doubront is better suited to pitch exclusively out of the bullpen? Doubront did make nine relief appearances last season for Boston, going 1-0 with a 4.66 ERA (five earned runs in 9 2/3 innings). Relocating from the rotation to the 'pen was something that Doubront admitted he wasn’t particularly keen on, but he slowly warmed up to the idea after watching injuries and ineffectiveness rip apart Boston’s bullpen.
Whatever the case, it behooves Okajima to use Thursday’s outing as a launching point to piece together a series of strong, leave-no-doubt outings. If that happens, then Boston will have to think long and hard about bringing the former bullpen stalwart back in the fold.
Asked what he feels is the key to getting back to Boston, Okajima responded, “I can’t place my finger on one thing exactly, but it’s all about pitching well, like I did (Thursday) and doing it over and over. Being consistent is all that I can do.”