Okajima to get lighter workload

Okajima to get lighter workload

BRADENTON, Fla. -- With the perspective of time, Red Sox manager Terry Francona admitted that he went to the well a little too often last season with Hideki Okajima, who swiftly became an indispensable member of a team that went on to win the World Series.

Yes, Okajima's numbers were dramatically different in the first half (0.83 ERA) than after the All-Star break (4.56).

"He needed a little bit of a blow in September, which I don't know if I view that as his fault," Francona said. "That's probably my fault. Sometimes, we ask more of guys than maybe they're ready to give. That's our responsibility to know."

Thanks to the respite enforced by Francona, Okajima -- who fired two shutout innings in Sunday's exhibition game against the Pirates -- was rejuvenated and went on to have a dazzling postseason. This time around, the manager promised to be more conservative with Okajima, who is entering his second Major League season with Boston.

"I don't mean this disrespectfully, but it's like you get a new toy," Francona said. "The manager gets a guy who can get everybody out. You want to pitch him every day."

It wasn't just the length of the season that was longer for Okajima than in Japan, but everything was so different. In particular, the travel schedule was far less forgiving.

"It was hard, honestly," said Okajima. "But last year, I experienced all the traveling. So the 162 [games] this year, it will be much easier."

Ironically, that travel starts back to Tokyo, where the Red Sox will open their 2008 season against the Oakland Athletics.

Though Okajima is looking forward to the trip home, he will be equally eager to get back to the United States. With a year under his belt, Okajima can't wait to make more adjustments.

For example, Okajima has added a more traditional changeup to his repertoire this year to go with the split changeup that led to so much of his success last year.

And he now realizes that he can't throw as much on the side as he did in Japan. Now he is on the program the Red Sox have outlined for him, which focuses on keeping his shoulder strong for the long haul.

"Right now, I'll try to stick with American style. I'm here in America, so they gave me a program and I'll stick with it," Okajima said. "I'll try to match my body with Major League-style [training], so just forget everything I did in Japan."

Okajima is no longer a novelty. Now he is a core member of a team trying to win back-to-back championships.

"If you're really good, you have to sustain it, which is not easy in this league," Francona said. "I don't care where you're from."

That will be Okajima's primary motive in 2008.

"So far everything is going well. Yes, mentally, I'm very comfortable," said Okajima. "Plus, we won the world championship, and we have more confidence as well."

As for last year's fatigue, Okajima has no regrets.

"It's true, there was fatigue at the end of the season, but I want to give everything I've got to the game," Okajima said. "I just want to do everything for the team and for the win."

Francona hopes for the same. It's just that this time around, he hopes to be more economical with the man known as "Oki."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.