Wakefield looks to baffle Rays
Red Sox turn to knuckleballer in Game 4 to even up ALCS
BOSTON -- There have been moments for Tim Wakefield that he has laughed out loud on the mound at an opposing hitter. That would be a mortal sin for most pitchers, but when the unpredictable knuckleball is your weapon of choice, baffled reactions are just part of the cost of doing business.
Wakefield's ability to float a baseball clear of big league bats has put food on his table for 16 seasons. The Red Sox are hoping the right-hander has a little more dodge, duck, dip and dive in his tank on Tuesday in Game 4, as he looks to even the American League Championship Series at two games apiece.
"There's been times where I've come out of the bullpen thinking I was going to throw a no-hitter, and I've lasted two or three innings," Wakefield said. "I try not to use my pregame warmups as a barometer of how I'm going to pitch. I've learned that over the past couple years.
"You've seen me dominate for four or five innings and then, one inning, I throw a couple spinners that come back at me hard. Then all of a sudden I get back in the groove. There's no set barometer that I look at to dictate whether I'm going to have a good one or not."
Indeed, since even Wakefield doesn't know where the baseball is headed sometimes, imagine how a big league hitter acts.
"There are some times where it makes me laugh," Wakefield said. "The hitters' reaction, hitters' facial expressions towards me kind of makes me laugh."
Wakefield vs. Rays in 2008
The knuckleball, as a rule, usually works better under the controlled room temperature settings of a dome, but Wakefield will need to do the best he can with whatever Fenway Park provides. He is, as always, beholden to the elements and what the wind will do with his non-spinning toss.
"The change is in my delivery or finger pressures," Wakefield said. "Obviously, my margin of error is very small, because I have to try to throw it without any spin. If I come out of my delivery at all, the ball is going to spin out of my hand, and that's when it gets kind of ugly out there."
The frustrating floater has driven veteran catchers to retirement, quite literally. Red Sox manager Terry Francona recalled on Monday that John Flaherty, at the end of a 14-year career, hung his shin guards up in March 2006 after an encounter with Wakefield's knuckleball.
"'Flash' came over to me that first game in Fort Myers, we were playing the Twins, and he looked like a deer in the headlights," Francona said. "The next day he came and got me off the treadmill and said, 'I cannot imagine doing this every five days.' And he retired."
TALE OF THE TAPE
|Andy Sonnanstine||Tim Wakefield|
|Overall||32 GS, 13-9, 4.38 ERA, 39 BB, 124 K||30 GS, 10-11, 4.13 ERA, 60 BB, 117 K|
|Key stat||3.35/1 K/BB ratio (8th in AL)||.228 OPP BA (3rd in AL)|
|2008||1 GS, 1-0, 3.18||First start|
|Career||1 GS, 1-0, 3.18||17 G (6 GS), 5-6, 6.42|
|2008||1 GS, 0-0, 0.00||14 GS, 7-4, 3.10|
|Career||3 GS, 1-0, 4.24||182 GS, 84-68, 4.31|
|2008 reg. season||2 GS, 0-0, 0.00||3 GS, 0-2, 5.87|
|Career||6 GS, 1-1, 5.40||31 GS, 19-5, 3.32|
|Loves to face||Kevin Youkilis (1-for-12)||Carlos Pena (4-for-30)|
|Hates to face||J.D. Drew (4-for-11)||Akinori Iwamura (10-for-24)|
|Why he'll win||13 innings vs. BOS, 0 runs||19 career wins vs. TB|
After eight years with Doug Mirabelli and a brief dalliance with Josh Bard, Wakefield has found his new man in Kevin Cash, a 30-year-old backup who will assume the catching duties on Tuesday.
"It's not easy," Francona said. "Some days, there's balls that are going to go to the backstop. That's just part of the way it is. There are going to be stolen bases, there's going to be wild pitches. There's going to be fastballs, but the good part of that is you look up in the seventh and he usually gives you a chance to win."
Wakefield has not pitched in a game since the final day of the regular season, when he was called upon to pitch five scoreless innings against the Yankees in the second game of a day-night doubleheader at Fenway on Sept. 28.
Wakefield said that he does not really have a concern about the long layoff, having grinded out some of the kinks with pitching coach John Farrell and throwing a good bullpen session in St. Petersburg.
"[I] threw a couple side [sessions], played a lot of flat groundwork during the ALDS and have thrown two sides since then, so I feel like I'm ready to go," Wakefield said.
The Yankees fielded a lineup full of inexperienced rookies that September evening as they played out the string, but Wakefield will have no such luxury against the Rays, who are looking to take a commanding lead in their first ALCS.
"I expect him to come out and pitch a good ballgame," Cash said. "I think his nerves will be in check pretty good. He's played long enough, for sure, to be able to handle that. I think he'll feel good. He'll be excited, and even if he doesn't, I think adrenaline will kick in."
Wakefield will face a Tampa Bay team that he formerly dominated, but coinciding with the club's turnaround, facing them has become no picnic. Wakefield was 19-3 lifetime against the Rays entering this season, but went 0-2 with a 5.87 ERA in three outings this season.
Some Tampa Bay hitters hammer Wakefield -- Carl Crawford (25-for-82) and Akinori Iwamura (10-for-24), to name two. Others can't figure him out -- Rocco Baldelli (3-for-26) and Carlos Pena (4-for-30) have done their share of flailing.
"Part of that is the fact that they're now a 97-win team as opposed to 67," Francona said. "Some of it is they have different players. Some of the career matchups Wake is always going to be a guy ... [where] there's always some interesting matchups."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.