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Okajima fills in flawlessly for Papelbon

Okajima fills in flawlessly for Papelbon

BOSTON -- Jonathan Papelbon has earned a reputation as one of the best closers in baseball. On Friday, he had the rare luxury of sitting in the bullpen and simply cheering his teammates as they turned the tables on Mariano Rivera.

Red Sox manager Terry Francona, showing a sense of humor after the heart-pounding 7-6 win over the Yankees at Fenway Park, said he thought of telling reporters before the game that Papelbon was available but decided to see how lefty Hideki Okajima would do instead.

Francona then quickly acknowledged that after saving the last two games in Toronto this week, the fireballing Papelbon was not available for Friday's opener with the Yankees.

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If this game were to be won by the Red Sox, it was going to be saved by someone else. Enter a Japanese pitcher not named Matsuzaka.

After the Red Sox scored five runs in the eighth, Kyle Snyder warmed up to begin the ninth. But Okajima was quickly called from the bullpen to face the heart of the Yankees lineup, featuring Derek Jeter, Bobby Abreu and Alex Rodriguez.

"I wasn't expecting to face them this soon," Okajima said of his debut in the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. "I was very happy that it's happened already. When we scored runs in the bottom of the eighth, when we tied, I started playing catch and we [got the lead], that's when I was told I was going to go."

"Their lefty [batters] hadn't seen him and with his changeup, he's been so dominant vs. righties," Francona explained. "And he throws strikes."

Jeter grounded weakly to second base for the first out. But Okajima quickly ran into trouble when he walked Abreu. That brought Rodriguez, who was already 3-for-4 with two homers, to the plate as the go-ahead run.

Okajima jammed Rodriguez, getting him to line out softy to Alex Cora at second.

"The guy made some good pitches," Rodriguez said. "Give the kid credit. He made a heck of a pitch on 3-2 [count], and I tip my cap."

"I was thinking that the absolute thing I have to avoid was the home run," Okajima said. "I could allow a hit, but never a home run. So that's what I had in mind, so I changed my mindset like that. That's how I went in and faced him."

After passing that test, Okajima didn't let up, as he got Kevin Thompson to strike out and give the Red Sox the win.

"It's important to close a game," Francona said. "The way we won -- not having Pap available or not wanting to Pap to be available -- is good for our staff, good for our team. To win a game like that against that team is very helpful. It'll help down the road."

No one was happier for Okajima than Papelbon, who was in the bullpen watching and cheering.

"That's a big boost for our bullpen," Papelbon said. "To be able to make it through the season and make the grind, it's a marathon and not a sprint. And for us to have each other's backs and for them to have mine, we're going to have to have big outings like that, and Oka did an awesome job. I'm really proud of him -- that's awesome."

Mike Petragliais a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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