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Monday, July 26, 2010
Fading Okajima underscores Sox's need for help

By Gordon Edes

ANAHEIM -- With just five days left before the trading deadline, the Red Sox's need for help in the bullpen, both in execution and evidently elocution, looks more urgent than ever after back-to-back, late-inning losses in Seattle and another game in which they blew a five-run ninth-inning lead to the Mariners and were forced to win in extra innings.

Hideki Okajima, who played such a vital role in the team’s success when he arrived in 2007 as the “other” Japanese pitcher, has become the weak link in the pen. His performance has raised questions whether the expiration date on his shelf life as a dependable lefty already has passed, and making it highly uncertain that the Sox can remain in the race in the AL East without another left-hander.

While Okajima was blowing the 2-1 lead Daniel Bard had handed to him in the eighth inning, Toronto left-hander Scott Downs, perhaps the most desirable left-handed reliever on the market, struck out two Tigers with the bases loaded in a tie game, and ultimately received credit for the win.

Downs is clearly on Boston’s radar, but the Sox have company, including the Yankees. He is the best of a very shallow pool of lefties that could be available, a list that includes Will Ohman of the Orioles, Craig Breslow of the Athletics, Javier Lopez of the Pirates, and Bruce Chen of the Royals. Breslow, Lopez and Chen have all been this way before. The list of right-handers that potentially could be moved includes Kevin Gregg and Jason Frasor of the Jays, Matt Capps of the Nationals and Kyle Farnsworth of the Royals.

Okajima’s season reached its nadir Sunday, when he gave up five straight singles, including two bunts he personally botched, and then irked members of the media, homegrown and Japanese alike, by refusing to accede to requests that he answer for himself. Okajima from the time he got to Boston, has said he preferred to remain in the “shadows” and has never seemed comfortable with the postgame interview format, one which is not the norm in Japan. These days, he is seldom sought out by English-speaking reporters, who have come to expect little or no cooperation, but given his central role in Sunday’s loss, his vanishing act touched a long-exposed nerve.

There were reports that teammates also were not pleased by his silence, though it is altogether probable that they wouldn’t care if Okajima granted a single interview if he could improve on these numbers: a 5.81 ERA that is third worst among AL lefty relievers with at least 20 innings, an .OPS by opposing batters of .947 that is second worst in the league, and an opponents’ slugging percentage of .537, built on 5 home runs and 14 extra-base hits, that is the highest in the AL.

In his last nine appearances in little over a month (since June 22), Okajima has a 10.57 ERA, allowing 9 earned runs in just 7 2/3 innings. Opponents are batting a staggering .500 (21 for 42) against him in that span. Okajima was shut down for a short period during that time with back stiffness, and perhaps there is a physical issue the club is keeping under wraps, but he has become a problem rather than part of the solution, increasing the pressure on GM Theo Epstein to make a deal.

We’ll keep you updated on trade developments here as we learn of them. The Sox interest in Royals outfielder David DeJesus proved fruitless when DeJesus tore ligaments in his thumb that will sideline him the rest of the season. They continue to be in on some level for Jayson Werth, and could still be looking for catching help, though Victor Martinez’s expected return Monday night eases that need.

Mike Lowell, who is rehabbing with Pawtucket, will be watching the trading deadline with interest, though his chances of landing in Texas appear dimmer amid reports that the Rangers are deep into talks for Jorge Cantu of the Marlins and also are looking at Derrek Lee of the Cubs. The Tigers have also been mentioned as a possible landing place for Lowell, who followed a four-hit performance Saturday by going 0 for 5 Sunday, but with Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen both placed on the DL, the Tigers are expected to aim higher.