BOSTON – Aaaar! The Eastern Wizard be lost without his first mate, Parlay the Parrot, when ridin' aboard the Black Pearl.
OK, this time in English, and with a bit of back story, too, because all this pirate nonsense just may have saved Game 2 of the World Series for the Boston Red Sox in their 2-1 victory Thursday night.
In the middle of this season, the Red Sox's relief pitchers, at the behest of bullpen coach Gary Tuck, started referring to themselves as a group of pirates. The bullpen in right field at Fenway Park was christened the Black Pearl. Each pitcher received a pirate name, naturally, and Hideki Okajima, the brilliant Japanese rookie left-hander, was henceforth the Eastern Wizard. And Parlay? Well, he's the stuffed parrot that reliever Mike Timlin's wife donated, and after the Red Sox clinched the American League pennant, he went missing.
This was a big deal. Seriously. The Red Sox's bullpen freaked out, because Okajima's extensive routine included touching Parlay before he entered games, and somehow, the guy brought in to help ease Daisuke Matsuzaka's transition to the United States had ended up as valuable as Boston's $103 million investment.
"He needs to touch the parrot," Red Sox reliever Kyle Snyder said. "Who knows what happens if he doesn't?"
Shiver Okajima's timbers, Parlay was returned before Game 1 by a pair of local college students, who claimed they found him in their freezer. Order was restored in the universe. And Okajima pitched 2 1/3 spotless innings and struck out four Colorado Rockies in Game 2, making the first appearance by a Japanese-born pitcher in the World Series a memorable one.
"Last year I pitched in the Japanese World Series, and I have some experience in a big stage like this, so I had the confidence today," Okajima said. "I had the confidence. I felt real good out there."
With two runners on and one out in the sixth inning, Red Sox manager Terry Francona tapped his left arm and beckoned the 31-year-old Okajima to spell a tiring Curt Schilling. He induced a Garrett Atkins groundout before striking out Brad Hawpe on a split-fingered changeup dubbed the Oki Doki.
To end the seventh inning, Okajima caught Ryan Spilborghs looking on an 89-mph fastball along the inside corner. He did the same to Willy Taveras to start the eighth, followed by whiffing countryman Kazuo Matsui on an Oki Doki and gave way to closer Jonathan Papelbon, the O-ka-ji-ma chants ringing throughout Fenway Park.
It was a testament to the cult of personality surrounding Okajima since he grabbed the Red Sox's setup role early in the season and spent most of it with a sub-2.00 earned-run average. Okajima's entrance song, a techno-thump by TATAMI called "Okajima, Oki Doki," has been downloaded so many times off iTunes that its popularity ranking is the highest possible, and Okajima's 12 scoreless innings this postseason certainly merit the esteem.
"I thought I had a pitch to hit, but a lot of guys are probably saying that, and we all walked back to the dugout," said Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who flied out on an Oki Doki. "He has an awkward motion – I guess that's how you'd describe it – and it throws off your timing."
In his motion, Okajima thrusts his head toward his chest as he moves toward home plate, a painful-looking maneuver he has employed dating back to the beginning of his career in Japan. There, Okajima served mostly as a middle reliever and won three championships, though he never achieved the type of acclaim he has forged during one season in Boston. On a team with a $150 million payroll, he was the $1.2 million bargain, the sign that great scouting – and a stroke of luck – could unearth a gem.
Still, Okajima wore down in September, giving up four runs and two home runs in Boston's loss to New York on Sept. 14. His fastball, which rarely cracks 90 mph, sagged into the mid 80s. The Red Sox shut him down for nearly two weeks to save his arm, and in that downtime, Okajima reaped ancillary benefits.
"Especially mentally," Okajima said. "I was able to rest for a bit, so for the World Series and postseason, I was able to refresh my mind."
Now, Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek said, "He's the same guy. He's back."
And still aboard the Black Pearl, which has earned quite a reputation this postseason for its antics. Overcome by boredom one day, the Red Sox relievers picked up a few empty water bottles and started banging on the bullpen dugout's roof. The noise wasn't loud enough, so they switched to metal spikes normally used to tack down a tarp, creating an impromptu Stomp show.
"It's just our way of trying to rally the troops," Timlin said. "People wear rally hats. They do other stuff. We bang."
Okajima, routine intact, sat there, bobbed his head and played groupie to the band.
Never did he consider joining in.
"I have no rhythm," he said.
And then he laughed. The Red Sox didn't bring Okajima in for his drumming skills. Just for his left arm.
Little did they know they'd found a buried treasure.
- Red Sox