Okajima named AL Rookie of the Month
Rookie reliever allowed only five hits in 12 April appearances
Most people saw this coming. Boston's rookie pitcher from Japan has some nasty stuff, sure to earn him the American League Rookie of the Month Award for April. But hold on a second -- it's not Daisuke Matsuzaka.
No, the honor and trophy belong to Red Sox reliever Hideki Okajima, the left-hander out of the 'pen whom most people don't recognize ... yet.
"I am very happy. When I came over to the U.S., the role I was thinking I would play was to be a pitcher who can pitch any time at any given moment," said Okajima, who compiled a 0.71 ERA and struck out 17 batters in 12 2/3 innings in April. "I'm being given those opportunities now, and I'm very happy to pitch in that situation."
Okajima, who signed with the Red Sox during the offseason, appeared in 12 games and allowed only five hits -- one a homer -- and three walks last month. He picked up his first Major League save, against the New York Yankees, on April 20.
But the 31-year-old's career in the U.S. didn't start the way Boston had hoped. Okajima gave up a home run to Royals catcher John Buck on his first pitch of the season. Ever since then, Okajima has proved one thing over and over: He belongs.
"When I gave up the home run to him, I thought, 'Wow, Major League batters are really great,' " Okajima said. "Because of that one pitch, now I've been able to get this far. That pitch was a good chance for me to learn what I need to do to have success in the Major Leagues. It made me rethink what way I can pitch in the U.S. and be successful. The result of that is where I am and how I'm pitching."
Okajima proved that he's not just an early-season star on the evening of April 20, when manager Terry Francona brought him in for his save against the Yankees. He made those guys in pinstripes look pretty uncomfortable at the plate.
Armed with a sneaky fastball, a curveball and a changeup that has surprised some of Boston's coaches, Okajima has made the Red Sox front office look brilliant.
"We knew he was a left-handed pitcher that had command," said pitching coach John Farrell. "But we saw him more as a fastball-curveball guy based on the scouting reports and video that we watched. The biggest surprise is how he's brought along his changeup, really a split change that's given him a pitch that's got later action and good arm speed and deception with it. To me, right now, it's probably the most effective pitch of his three-pitch mix."
Okajima laughed when he heard that Yankees first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said he should be Boston's MVP for April. Okajima knew it was early for statements like that.
"If I heard that at the end of the season, I would be very happy to hear that," Okajima said. "I will stay humble, and I will keep working hard to continue the success."
Akinori Iwamura of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays finished a close second in the voting to Okajima. Also receiving votes in the American League were Matsuzaka, Delmon Young of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Angels pitcher Dustin Moseley, Adam Lind of the Toronto Blue Jays and Joakim Soria of the Kansas City Royals.
Caleb Breakey is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.