Okajima among Final Vote candidates
Red Sox reliever seeking All-Star berth in rookie season
BOSTON -- One of the most underappreciated jobs in Major League Baseball is that of the setup reliever. That being said, Red Sox lefty reliever Hideki Okajima has a chance to receive one of the highest forms of appreciation a player can get. The rookie from Japan has been selected as a Final Vote candidate for the American League All-Star squad.If selected, Okajima would join teammates Josh Beckett, Jonathan Papelbon, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Mike Lowell at the July 10 All-Star Game at AT&T Park in San Francisco. "I appreciate all the Red Sox fans and fans in Japan for their support," Okajima said in a statement. "I hope everyone keeps supporting me and cheering for me. If I am selected into the All-Star Game, it will be a great honor to participate." Now in its sixth year, the Monster.com 2007 All-Star Final Vote gives baseball fans around the world the opportunity to select the final player on each All-Star team. Balloting began immediately following Sunday's Major League All-Star Selection Show presented by Chevrolet, and continues until 6 p.m. ET on Thursday. The winners will be announced on MLB.com shortly thereafter. There is precedence for Red Sox players going to the All-Star Game on the strength of the Final Vote. Johnny Damon rode the support of Red Sox Nation to the All-Star Game in 2002. Jason Varitek got there the same way in '03. "I think it would be great," said Lowell. "I think it would be outstanding. He's really been a main go-to guy in all situations. He can get lefties out; he can get righties out. He's arguably the best setup man in the game right now." Okajima (0.90 ERA in 37 appearances) is one of five players vying to win the Final Vote in the American League. Along with Okajima, the competition features one other setup man in Twins right-hander Pat Neshek. The other three candidates are starting pitchers Jeremy Bonderman (Tigers), Roy Halladay (Blue Jays) and Kelvim Escobar (Angels). There are two ways for fans to vote for the 2007 All-Star Final Vote -- online now at MLB.com, or on-the-go from their cell phones. Fans also can text the word "VOTE" to 36197 to have the All-Star Final Vote candidates sent to your phone. To vote for a specific player, simply reply with your choice. Whether celebrating the Fourth of July or Canada Day, fans will have the freedom to vote from wherever they are. Standard rate text messaging fees apply -- please check with your mobile carrier for details. Fans can get the mobile ballot now. In Canada, fans should text the word "VOTE" to 88555.
The fun doesn't end there, however. Fans, having already decided the starters and final player on each team, once again will have the opportunity to participate in the official voting for the Ted Williams Most Valuable Player presented by Chevrolet via the Monster 2007 All-Star Game MVP Vote on MLB.com.The 78th Major League Baseball All-Star Game will be televised nationally by FOX Sports, in Canada by Rogers Sportsnet and Sportsnet HD and televised around the world by Major League Baseball International, with pregame ceremonies beginning at 8 p.m. ET. ESPN Radio will provide exclusive national radio coverage, while MLB.com will provide extensive online coverage. XM will provide satellite radio play-by-play coverage of the XM All-Star Futures Game. It was expected that the Red Sox would have a star rookie from Japan this season. It's just that all the hype was over starting pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, who is 9-5 with a 3.80 ERA. Okajima, who dubbed himself a "hero in the dark" in Spring Training, has been arguably as valuable as any member of the Red Sox this season. A solid veteran during his 12 years in Nippon Professional Baseball, Okajima has been dominant for the Red Sox, registering 35 strikeouts in 39 innings. With the Red Sox giving All-Star closer Papelbon a conservative workload, Okajima has saved four games. He's held opponents to a .163 batting average. Has Okajima ever pitched better than he has in Boston? "I've been successful, but this isn't the best, because I've done a good job in Japan too," Okajima said recently through translator Jeff Yamaguchi. "Although, numbers-wise, with my ERA, this is the best. In Japan, relief pitchers must pitch every day, so you get tired." Okajima's stellar run is due in large part to a changeup with splitter-like action that he developed over the winter after experimenting with the Major League Baseball, which is bigger than the one in Japan. "I got the new changeup in December, but I didn't want to use it in exhibition games because I didn't want to show it to the other teams," Okajima said. "I tried to make them think my weapon was a curve. So I went curve, curve, curve and didn't throw that changeup at all." Papelbon hopes not to be the only Boston reliever going to San Fran. "[Okajima] definitely is well deserving of that, no doubt about it," Papelbon said. "Hopefully we can sway some votes his way."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.