BOSTON -- Handed an uneasy 2-1 margin and 5 1/3 strong innings from Curt Schilling, the Red Sox flexed an underused muscle in Game 2 of the World Series on Thursday night: dominant late-inning relief.
"This was the Pap-ajima Show tonight," Schilling said. "That was just phenomenal to watch."
Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon, so central to the success of a Red Sox relief corps that posted an American League-best 3.10 ERA and .226 opponents' batting average during a dominant regular season, were as sharp as ever in a 2-1 win.
They did it for 3 2/3 near-flawless innings, and they did it with command, intelligence and ruthless efficiency. Six Rockies returned to the bench as strikeout victims. Three of the final four Colorado innings ended in third strikes (Papelbon wrapped up the eighth with an inspired pickoff throw to first, a directive from bench coach Brad Mills).
"Okajima," said Schilling, "was perfect, just absolutely perfect -- every single pitch. And that's a [heck] of a lineup to go through. And then Pap comes in, and ... much like Josh [Beckett], his stuff is a little bit better now than it was all year, and that's saying a lot. Those two guys, that was the story tonight."
Game 2, then, was in many ways more characteristic of the 2007 Red Sox's season than Boston's bitter weeklong assault on Indians and Rockies pitching. In Games 6 and 7 of the American League Championship Series and in World Series Game 1, the Red Sox scored double digits, becoming the first playoff team in history to put together three such efforts. Not once did they require such a virtuosic effort from the back end of the bullpen.
For Okajima, who on Thursday became the first Japanese pitcher to appear in a World Series game, the performance was validation, of sorts, for his late-season shutdown period. The 31-year-old left-hander made the AL All-Star team in his rookie season stateside, but he struggled through a 19-game stretch in August and September in which he posted a 6.23 ERA.
On the advice of team medical personnel, the Red Sox rested Okajima for 10 games in September, then proceeded to rebuild arm strength through a series of throwing progressions.
"It did help," Okajima said through an interpreter. "Mentally, I was able to rest for the postseason and the World Series. I was able to refresh my mind."
Now, Red Sox fans must brace for the possibility that yet another big-game postseason star makes his home in Boston. In Japan, Okajima starred for 11 seasons on Nippon Pro Baseball's Yomiuri Giants, one of the Pacific Rim's most illustrious, pressurized baseball environments. In 2006, he pitched in the Japanese World Series for the victorious Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
So far in the 2007 postseason, he has thrown 9 2/3 scoreless innings.
"I have some experience in a big stage like this, so I was confident out there," Okajima said. "I felt real good out there."
Okajima entered with one out in the sixth, inducing a groundout to Garrett Atkins and striking out Brad Hawpe on a disappearing changeup. He finished with 2 1/3 perfect innings in his first appearance against the Rockies.
"He's very effective," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said of Okajima. "He can speed you up, slow you down. He throws strikes. He's got some deception."
For Schilling, it was a relatively quick hook; his problems were physical, he told reporters after the game, saying that he "just couldn't get loose" during the bottom of the sixth.
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"I've been around him so long, I know his body language so well," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "He was fighting it that last inning, and what we didn't want to do is have somebody give up a run because they were getting stiff or they [couldn't] execute a pitch they needed to. So it was time to get him out of there."
Despite his troubles, Schilling gave up just one run on four hits and two walks in perhaps his last start with the Red Sox, pitching through trouble in his first and last innings. The win, his 11th in a postseason game, tied him with Greg Maddux for fifth all time, and he received a raucous ovation when he left the mound.
In a postgame interview, Schilling brushed off a question about his status with the Red Sox, which will be thrown into question when he files for free agency after the season.
"I guarantee everybody is as sick of hearing it as I am," he laughed. "It seems like the last four or five games, everybody is [saying], 'This could be, this could be.' Whatever happens is going to happen. You know, I have faith in God that it's going to work out the way it's supposed to work out.
"[The Red Sox] know what I want and they know I want to come back, and we'll deal with that at the appropriate time," he said.
In came Papelbon after Okajima left. The Red Sox's closer shut down the Rockies for a four-out save, securing one of Boston's few tight wins in October.
"It definitely was a different feeling, and for me, I had to keep my emotions in check out there," Papelbon said. "And I pitch off of emotion -- there's no doubt about that."
The final out came on a swinging strike to Hawpe, a pitch that measured on the stadium's radar gun as a 99-mph fastball. It was the sixth and final strikeout by Okajima and Papelbon, Boston's untouchable tandem.
"You know, I think that we all kind of just feed off of each other," Papelbon said. "That's what we did tonight; we just fed off each other and did what we normally do."
Alex McPhillips is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.