- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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DETROIT -- The tendency is to assume that Tim Wakefield is in the valedictory stage of what has been a rich and varied career, a time when longtime foes pay their respects the way Jim Leyland did Friday.
"He's everything that's good about the game of baseball,'' said the Detroit Tigers' manager, who held the same job in Pittsburgh when Wakefield made his big league debut for the Pirates a century ago. (Well, it was last century, but technically it was just 19 years ago. Poetic license, and all that.)
Still, just when you think the 44-year-old Wakefield is at the point of taking a final victory lap, he goes out and generates more victories instead, like the Boston Red Sox's 6-3 win over Leyland's Tigers on Friday night. The man simply isn't ready for a life of leisure and watching his kids grow up. Not when he can still make his knuckleball dance on a string only he can see.
"That's a pretty cool compliment, coming from him,'' Wakefield said when relayed Leyland's words. "He's been around the game a long time. I respect that man a tremendous amount over there.
"I pitched so good for him in '92, then in '93 I struggled really bad. Then, obviously in '94, I didn't make the club out of spring training, and I was released in '95.''
Not exactly a recipe for longevity, but Wakefield has made a career of standing convention on its head, entrusting his livelihood to a pitch that can make even the most accomplished hitters wish they were hitting off a tee instead of flailing at his knuckler.
"Fun to watch,'' said Clay Buchholz, who wrested away Wakefield's spot in the rotation last season but at age 26 marvels at the older man's ability to still compete. "I know I probably won't be doing it when I'm 44."
And what will Buchholz be doing? "Probably playing golf,'' he said.
For Wakefield, meanwhile, what had had looked like a quixotic quest to become the winningest pitcher in Sox history is back on again. Wakefield would have to go on a heck of a run to do it this season, but he now has 181 wins, just 11 away from tying Cy Young and Roger Clemens for most W's recorded in a Sox uniform.
"I'll think about it when I get there,'' Wakefield said when asked if his long-sought goal was within reach again. "I'll think about my next start first.''
But the same calendar that mandates an end even to the most storied careers still has a few pages left for Wakefield, who is following in the footsteps of some other notable names in the knuckleballers' fraternity -- Hoyt Wilhelm, Charlie Hough, Phil Niekro -- in making age irrelevant.
"I'm not doubting that,'' Wakefield said when it was noted that he looked as if he could pitch for another few years. "I feel great physically, and we'll see what happens.''
Red Sox manager Terry Francona isn't counting him out.
"He deserves that, for us to have confidence in him,'' Francona said. "He's been doing it for a long time. I don't know when it's going to stop. Maybe when he wants it to.''
And if the Wall Street bailout had worked as effectively as Wakefield and Alfredo Aceves have in rescuing the tattered Sox rotation, we'd all be buying vacation homes with the money we made in our 401k's.
"We were talking about that -- that's impressive,'' Francona said of the Aceves/Wakefield salvage operation. "The four starts they've given us, they haven't gone nine, but they've been solid starts. It's given the ballclub a huge lift.''
Wakefield was touched for a run in each of the first two innings Friday night, one on a 430-foot home run by Jhonny Peralta, then held the Tigers to just two singles over the next five innings before giving way to Daniel Bard.
Spacious Comerica Park provided plenty of room for speedy outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford to run down balls. They caught 10 balls between them while Wakefield was on the hill, including a terrific diving catch by Ellsbury that took a hit away from Alex Avila in the sixth.
"I thought we did center some balls pretty good,'' Leyland told reporters after the game. "What I think you saw was the speed in their outfield. With Crawford and Ellsbury, you saw some plays that maybe other teams don't make. But they make them.''
Wakefield has made two starts since John Lackey (elbow) and Daisuke Matsuzaka (worse elbow) went on the disabled list and has won them both. Aceves also has made two starts, allowing a run apiece, and has a win and a no-decision.
Wakefield went six innings against the Cubs last Sunday and allowed a run on five hits. Friday, he went deeper -- seven innings -- and allowed only five hits again.
It's an open question, of course, how long Wakefield will remain in the rotation. Matsuzaka will be out for weeks, if not the rest of the season, as he is scheduled to visit Dr. Lewis Yocum in Los Angeles on Tuesday for a second opinion on his elbow, the worst-case scenario being that he needs Tommy John reconstructive surgery. Lackey, meanwhile, pitched a two-inning simulated game Friday and is scheduled to make a rehab start on Tuesday in Pawtucket, which would put him on track to return to the Sox rotation on Sunday.
As the rotation is presently constituted, Aceves is scheduled to pitch that day. Either he or Wakefield could be headed back to the pen -- with the Sox also having the option of returning Aceves to Pawtucket to continue starting -- though that is not a prospect likely to enchant the veteran right-hander.
That decision can wait. In the meantime, as even the losing Leyland might acknowledge, a good night for Wakefield meant it was a good night for the game.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
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