One theme during the Red Sox' 11-game homestand, which was littered with rain delays and exhaustion, was that of relief pitchers taking one for the team. Several were called upon to eat up innings in a way they might not normally do.
Scott Atchison and Alfredo Aceves had lengthy relief outings. Matt Albers threw two innings three times on the homestand. Daniel Bard appeared six times in the first 10 games of the span, including a two-inning stint of his own.
In Monday's finale, it was Hideki Okajima's turn.
With Albers and Bard unavailable, and Aceves and Jonathan Papelbon already used as the Sox and Twins went to extra innings, manager Terry Francona turned to his lefty for what ended up being the longest outing in terms of pitches in Okajima's 261-game major league career.
The southpaw threw 43 pitches in two tension-filled innings. He gave up two hits and walked a pair, bending but not breaking and holding out long enough so that the offense could get the winning run before Francona had to dig deeper.
"He had been rested for a few days, which is good because we had leaned on Albers and Bard a little bit and wanted to stay away from them," Francona said of Okajima. "Did a good job."
Francona added that each of the relievers was, and always is, aware of the situation in terms of who is available and who is not. Okajima surely was, but it did not alter his approach one bit.
"I'm always prepared to pitch whenever I am called upon, so I don't really worry about those things," Okajima said through interpreter Jeff Cutler.
Okajima was not perfect. But in keeping with the bullpen's gutsy theme this week, he exhibited exceptional escapability.
After retiring the first batter of the top of the 10th, Okajima gave up a walk and a single. He battled back in that frame by striking out Matt Tolbert and getting Alexi Casilla to ground out.
The 11th saw a similar scenario, as a leadoff single and a one-out walk gave Minnesota something with which to work. A fielder's choice put runners on the corners with two outs, and Okajima fanned Rene Rivera with a curveball in the dirt.
"He was great," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "He pitched out of some jams and did his thing."
Five minutes later, Okajima was part of a jubilant bunch that mobbed walk-off hero Carl Crawford. The left-hander had his first win since last July in what was also his 700th professional game between Japan and the United States.
When asked about the milestone, Okajima thanked his parents for the way in which they raised him. On a night when he became the latest Red Sox reliever to save the bullpen, he wasn't the only one appreciative of that.
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