Wake, Unit score one for the 'old guys'
Combined ages of Wednesday's starters 86 years, 252 days
BOSTON -- This one was for the Baby Boomers, the Social Security Administration and basically anybody who goes around saying, "You're only as old as you feel" while actually believing that.
It was like Active-Roster Old-Timers' Night at Fenway Park. Two pitchers, similar in stretching their careers into seeming agelessness but completely different in styles, displayed their considerable crafts one more time.
What is the difference now? Randy Johnson of the Diamondbacks doesn't throw 98 mph anymore, but Tim Wakefield of the Red Sox still throws knuckleballs. It is apparently easier becoming ageless as a knuckleballer, although Wakefield has the slight age advantage here as well, nearing 42, while Johnson closes in on 45.
OK, maybe both of these guys are being scouted by the American Association of Retired Persons. But they can still pitch. The evidence was all over the place on Wednesday night in what became a pitchers' duel regardless of age. The striking thing with both of these pitchers is not merely age -- it is the issue of carrying excellence past the point when most pitchers have retired to the golf course, the patio, the easy chair.
Johnson produced a quality start, but Wakefield provided a superior start. Johnson gave up two runs in six innings, but Wakefield gave up none in seven, allowing only two hits.
Wakefield's knuckler proved to be mostly unhittable for Arizona. The D-backs had done everything reasonable to prepare for him. One of the team broadcasters is Tom Candiotti, former knuckleball specialist, winner of 151 Major League games. He chipped in by pitching batting practice. But the knuckleball was still an unsolved puzzle for the D-backs, who couldn't connect against Wakefield, and the Red Sox went on to a 5-0 victory.
"He was really good," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said of Wakefield. "I thought their guy did pretty good, too, but Wake can pitch. I don't think that's ever been questioned.
"You look up in the seventh inning, and you usually have a chance to win the game. He has a knack of doing that, and he's done it for a long time. Hopefully, it'll continue."
Wakefield is now 5-5 with a 3.88 ERA, and he leads the Red Sox in quality starts, with 11. He put the matter of age in solid perspective in his postgame comments.
"The game has changed so much, you're seeing a lot of older guys," Wakefield said. "You've got to give Randy a lot of credit, he's 44 years old. [Philadelphia's] Jamie Moyer, 45. And I think the key to that is offseason regimen and in-season.
"When I was a rookie, pitchers were forbidden to even touch weights, except for a five-pound weight to do your cuff stuff. Now the game has changed so much that we actually are working out between starts and maybe are able to prolong our careers.
"Obviously, with me, the way I throw might have a lot to do with that, too. A guy like Randy, who has battled back injuries and is still pitching at age 44, and still throwing the ball very well, says a lot about how the game has changed and how strength coaches and trainers are on top of everything."
Let us put the age thing in further perspective. When Johnson and Wakefield met as mound opponents on Wednesday night, their combined age was 86 years and 252 days. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this was the oldest matchup of starting pitchers in Fenway Park history.
This was also the oldest pair of starters in a Red Sox game since Sept. 25, 1965, when Bill Monbouquette faced Satchel Paige of the then-Kansas City A's. The age of those two totaled 88 years and 126 days. But that total was slightly skewed, since Monbouquette was 29 and Paige was 59. Paige's advanced age did not stop him from throwing three innings of shutout, one-hit ball.
Wakefield may be able to go on with his knuckleball for some time. He has pitched for the Red Sox since 1995, he was a 17-game winner in 2007 and he has become the closest thing to a constant this operation has, with the exception of Fenway Park itself.
Johnson is a different question. He is a living legend, the Big Unit, a certain Hall of Famer, an absolutely dominant pitcher between the ages of 30 and 40, winner of four straight Cy Young Awards beginning at age 35. The encouraging thing for him in Wednesday night's performance was that he was sharper from the third inning on, although his pitch count (109) did not allow him to go farther than the sixth.
"Location got better as the game progressed," Johnson said. "I gave up a lot of hits [eight], but I was able to get out of any inning that might have been big."
On the topic of facing Wakefield, Johnson smiled slightly when he said, "I faced Wake a few times when I was with the Yankees, beat him 1-0, so I guess what goes around comes around."
Johnson's fastball reached 94 mph in this game. This is obviously not what it once was, but his overall performance looked better than his season numbers (4-6, 4.94 ERA) would suggest. Though he may not be the dominant Big Unit of years gone by, he is still clearly a highly competitive pitcher.
Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin was Arizona's bench coach in 2001-02, when Johnson was at his peak. He was asked for a comparison, Randy Johnson then to now.
"The velocity is not quite there, but the sharpness of the slider is there, the command of it is good," Melvin said. "He's still a power pitcher. He pitches like a power pitcher. He has incorporated some other pitches -- throws a few more two-seamers and some more splits. He still throws the slider to both spots, and he still is effective when he pitches inside. So he's just added a few more pitches to complement his repertoire, but the velocity isn't in the 96, 98 range like it used to be.
"When he has struggled, for the most part, it's been one inning. And our defense has let him down some, too. There was a four- or five-game stretch, similar to what we saw last year, when he was pretty dominant but we didn't give him much support.
"Anybody who gets a little farther up there [in age] is going to have to do some things a little differently. But his mind-set is still the same. He still expects to go out there and compete at a high level and expects to win games."
That's the basic commodity that time has not dimmed with either of these pitchers. Yes, there were more than 86 years of age for the two starting pitchers on Wednesday night. But for 13 innings of combined work, they gave up two runs.
Give Tim Wakefield the victory and the credit for pitching an absolute gem. Give Randy Johnson credit for keeping his team in the game against one of the best offenses in baseball. But mostly, give both of them credit for being this good, this long.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.