Sox's setup man struggling with splitter

Okajima struggling with splitter

HOUSTON -- Though the Red Sox would love to get Hideki Okajima back to the All-Star form he was at a year ago, it's not going to happen until the lefty setup man regains the finish of his most trusted pitch.

Okajima's splitter is lacking its closing dip, leaving it in far too many meaty positions for opposing hitters to get good rips.

"To me, what's become more obvious of late is just the inconsistent finish to his split-finger, which was such a dominant pitch for him a year ago," said Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell. "It's something we continue to assess and that he continues to work on with his throwing program daily. It's something we monitor in his bullpens prior to coming into a game."

Last year, Red Sox manager Terry Francona would always go to Okajima when the game was on the line in the eighth inning, and sometimes to even close out the seventh. In fact, Okajima also had five saves last year, filling in admirably in the ninth inning on days Jonathan Papelbon was unavailable.

But the way things are going for the lefty now, Francona and Farrell have to pick their spots.

For instance, Francona thought he had a good position for Okajima on Friday night against the Astros, when he brought him on in the eighth inning of a game the Red Sox led, 4-0. After retiring the first two batters, Okajima left a fat splitter over the heart of the plate, and pinch-hitter Reggie Abercrombie crushed it for a homer. The reliever did the same thing to the next batter, Miguel Tejada, who came just inches from a homer and instead settled for a double.

Francona then went to Papelbon, who registered the save.

"Last year, we had [Okajima] come in and a lot of times and get that third out and a lot of times going back out," Francona said. "He was devastating. He went through a period here where he was really struggling with inherited runners and we were trying to keep him out of situations for his own good, his own confidence. I think the idea is to kind of get him on a role so he can help us, but when you're pitching in the eighth inning and have Pap behind you, sometimes you're going to come out of the game."

It's sometimes hard for the Red Sox to determine these days what is the right situation for Okajima, particularly when right-handed setup man Manny Delcarmen has caught fire.

"How it affects our usage of him, that's something we have to factor in as we continue to go forward," said Farrell. "Whether it's Hideki or whether it's another pitcher, certainly when you're on a consistent role, your confidence is at its highest. That might not be the case right now, but still, he's going to be a key part of our bullpen. How we match that up, that will be something we look at game-to-game."

Through 33 games, Okajima is 1-1 with a 3.21 ERA. A year ago, he posted a 2.22 ERA in 66 appearances.

"There have been times where his location hasn't been as perfect as it has been in the past," Francona said. "He set the bar so high last year that actually his numbers, he's got a little bit over a 3 [ERA]. I think you'll see a stretch where he gets hot."

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