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Okajima and Young win the Final Vote


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BOSTON -- Red Sox Nation -- which now extends all the way to Japan -- has proved what a powerful force it can be once again with Thursday's announcement that Hideki Okajima has won the American League's Monster 2007 All-Star Final Vote ballot.


Okajima is the third Red Sox player to win the Final Vote competition since its inception in 2002. Johnny Damon won the inaugural AL vote that summer, and Jason Varitek -- the current captain of the Red Sox -- captured the honor in 2003.


In the case of lefty reliever Okajima, he got massive support from two continents. Though Daisuke Matsuzaka was the player from Japan who got all the hype when the Red Sox acquired him over the offseason, Okajima has been every bit as valuable to the success of the team.


He has given the Red Sox a front-line setup man to put in front of All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon. In fact, Okajima will have plenty of familiar company in San Francisco for the All-Star festivities, where he'll be joined by teammates Papelbon, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell.


Okajima trailed Tigers right-hander Jeremy Bonderman as of late Monday afternoon but then catapulted to the top and stayed there. Also on the ballot were Twins setup man Pat Neshek, Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay and Angels right-handed starter Kelvim Escobar. Votes were conducted online at MLB.com.


Okajima, who dubbed himself a "hero in the dark" in Spring Training, has been arguably as valuable as any member of the Red Sox this season.


A solid veteran during his 12 years in Nippon Professional Baseball, Okajima has been dominant for the Red Sox, posting a 0.88 ERA in his first 38 Major League outings. He has held opponents to a .156 average and has 8.12 strikeouts per nine innings.


The key to Okajima's emergence has been his changeup, which dives like a splitter. Okajima basically created the pitch while experimenting with the Major League-sized baseball in December. The baseball used in the Major Leagues is said to be slicker and a little bigger and heavier than the one used in Nippon Professional Baseball.


Okajima's emergence has been a big bright spot for the Red Sox, who have led the American League East by a comfortable margin for most of the first half.


"It's been great to see," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "He's been a vital member of the bullpen and of the team since we broke camp in April. He didn't have his curveball in Spring Training. And instead of worrying about it, he went out and further developed his changeup, and made that a plus-plus pitch for him. Now he's got his curveball back, he's locating his fastball on both sides and showing great makeup on the mound as well. So he's done an excellent job."


Though he's in just his first Major League season, Okajima sensed that the opportunity doesn't come along all that often for a setup man to go to the All-Star Game.


"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Okajima said earlier this week. "And that's why I want to play in the All-Star Game this year."


He got his wish, thanks to overwhelming support from his fans.


SAN DIEGO -- While Chris Young was elated on Thursday after finding out that he had earned a spot on the National League's roster for the All-Star Game as the winner of the Monster 2007 All-Star Final Vote, he was every bit as thrilled by the means that got him there.


Consider the preponderance of evidence.


Teammates Trevor Hoffman and Jake Peavy -- who will join Young in San Francisco on Tuesday for the All-Star Game at AT&T Park -- taped video messages that were shown on the scoreboard at PETCO Park all week. San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders also taped a message.


There were computers situated on the concourses at PETCO Park for fans to vote for the 6-foot-10 Young. Padres CEO Sandy Alderson urged employees to vote often for Young. Then there was Hoffman's three boys clicking away on the computer in the Padres clubhouse.


"That almost means more than going itself," Young said of the support he has received this week. "... You know the guys, the city, the organization, to be so supportive and so outgoing, that means more than even getting to go to the game."


Heck, even one of Young's competitors for the final spot on the National League roster -- Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano -- gave his support for Young instead of stumping for votes for himself.


"The only thing I was surprised at was that Chris Young of the San Diego Padres wasn't on that team," Zambrano said. "He deserved to go. He's done good this year. Honestly, he's the one that deserves to go, not me."


The 78th Major League Baseball All-Star Game will be televised nationally by FOX Sports, in Canada by Rogers Sportsnet and Sportsnet HD and televised around the world by Major League Baseball International, with pregame ceremonies beginning at 5 p.m. PT. ESPN Radio will provide exclusive national radio coverage, while MLB.com will provide extensive online coverage. XM will provide satellite radio play-by-play coverage of the XM All-Star Futures Game.


Young led the National League in each day's Final Vote update. He certainly didn't hurt his chances on Wednesday against the Marlins at PETCO Park, when he threw seven scoreless innings with nine strikeouts in a 1-0 victory.


And while he didn't earn a decision, Young managed to lower his ERA this season to an NL-best 2.00.


Young (8-3) has the best home ERA (0.82) and opponents' batting average (.197) in the Major Leagues.


"He put an exclamation point on his first half," San Diego manager Bud Black said of Young's outing Wednesday.


A record 18.7 million votes were cast through online balloting for the sixth annual Final Vote proceeding on MLB.com.


Young's votes came from any number of sources -- fans, players and even his manager.


But it was Peavy who was perhaps the one who trumpeted Young's cause the most, from Sunday when it was announced that Young was a Final Vote candidate all the way up to Peavy's start on Thursday. During interviews with local and national media, Peavy lobbied for Young.


"I'm extremely disappointed that Chris Young is not on this team," Peavy said Sunday in Los Angeles. "There's no way this guy should not be on this All-Star team. If you're going to vote on an All-Star from April 1 to now, Chris Young is the All-Star."


And now, after the Final Vote, Young is officially an All-Star.

Bitch away at the exclusion of Pat.

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