ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – It was a familiar progression – Hideki Okajima, to Justin Masterson, to Jonathan Papelbon.
But while Saturday night’s chain of events might have seemed to be kicked off with a less-than-100 percent Josh Beckett’s limitations, it truly began months ago. In reality, the Red Sox’ bullpen defining moment might have been born the minute Houston’s Reggie Abercrombie took an Okajima pitch over the Minute Maid Park wall way back on June 27.
This is when the lefty reliever was reborn and became the pitcher that has gone a long way in saving the Red Sox’ season.
“It was during inter-league play in Houston, when Abercrombie hit a split off of him for a home run,” remembered Red Sox’ pitching coach John Farrell immediately after his team’s 4-2 win over Tampa Bay in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, at Tropicana Field. “There was an acknowledgement on his part that he felt he was pacing himself because of what he felt last year from a physical stress, and a physical workload aspect. To try and alleviate that he was pacing him, thinking how he was going to work his way through the last 3 ½ months that were remaining in the season.
“We told him to go back to the (all out) approach and we would find the time to get him down time as he needed it. We told him, ‘Don’t take that upon yourself and take away from the effectiveness of the pitches.’ Through some dialogue and some conversation he revealed that, and then he said, ‘OK, I’m going to do what made so good last year and that I shouldn’t hold anything back.’”
Following two more innings of scoreless work – this time perhaps THE most important two innings of scoreless work in the lefty’s career – Okajima finds himself with remarkable numbers since Abercrombie aided in the reliever’s enlightenment.
Following the defining moment in Texas, Okajima has pitched in 38 games, compiling a staff-best 1.93 ERA and .138 opponents batting average.
He has now pitched in 6 1/3 innings throughout the ALCS, having allowed just one hit. Okajima’s last three appearances against the Rays have gone two innings each, helping the Sox manage the workload of set-up men Justin Masterson and Jonathan Papelbon to some extent.
And, as a bonus, in 11 games this season against Tampa Bay Okajima has yet to surrender a run over 13 innings, striking out 13 and walking two while limiting the Rays’ hitters to a .133 batting average with no home runs.
“What Okajima has done in this series,” Farrell said, “is just remarkable.”
What he did in Game 6 was bridge an important gap, that began with Beckett and linked up with reliever Justin Masterson. But as important as it was for Okajima to move the line along, the lefty’s success might have been forgotten if not for his rookie counterpart, Masterson.
The side-winding righty, who pitched a scoreless eighth inning, has now appeared in nine of the Red Sox’ 10 postseason games. He has allowed just three runs, induced a pair of double plays, and thrown 176 pitches over the 19-day stretch.
This time the closest Masterson came to any sort of trouble came when he hit his first batter in almost two months, Jason Bartlett, to lead off the eighth. But a strikeout of Akinori Iwamura, and pop-ups by B.J. Upton and Carlos Pena, helped build upon the even-keeled rookie’s growing reputation.
“He was phenomenal,” said Red Sox long reliever Paul Byrd. “He pitches like he has 15 years up here. He’s calm and collected. You can put him in any situation, it’s amazing. You can talk about the fact he throws 94 mph side-arm and has a great slider, but the whole thing to me is he has the poise of a 15-year veteran. It blows me away how calm, cool, and collected he is out there in his first playoffs, ever.”
And then there was the closer.
Papelbon admittedly got through his latest scoreless postseason inning while running on fumes, as a 92 mph fastball would suggest. Yet despite feeling the effects of throwing 141 postseason pitches (10 in this latest outing, his 25th consecutive scoreless inning in the playoffs), the reliever was able to draw upon experience to close out the Game 6 triumph.
“Good to me is average,” explained Papelbon, who was told he might be brought in as early as the sixth inning if needed. “I didn’t have my good fastball, by A-plus fastball, no. But I had my A-plus mind-set.
“It’s a major league baseball season. This is nothing new to me. The aches and pains are nothing new to me. For me, in these times, if I don’t have my A-plus fastball I better have my A-plus mental approach and my A-plus head-set. My head was right (Saturday night). My head stayed focused at what my job was and my head head stayed (on) pitching. I was able to throw 10 pitches (Saturday night) and preserve a victory. To me these games are really one-of-a-kind to me. When you don’t have you’re A-plus stuff out there and you’re able to go out there and will yourself a win … this one was a special one for me.”