- Gordon Edes, Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- With diminished memory often a telltale sign of advanced age, perhaps it should not have come as a surprise that Tim Wakefield drew a blank when asked about the time he threw 169 pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers.
That happened 14 years ago, and Wakefield's recollection of that game wasn't fuzzy. It was nonexistent.
"In Milwaukee?" he said. "I did? I don't remember."
If you've thrown as many innings as Wakefield has (3,135) over the course of 19 big-league seasons, you're entitled to forget a few. And when you can still pitch the way Wakefield does at age 44, limiting the Brewers to three runs Sunday in a 12-3 win in the rubber game of a three-game set with Milwaukee, any discussion of age seems superfluous.
"He's pretty young for a knuckleballer," said Boston Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, reflecting a knowledge of a knuckleballing fraternity that over the years has included Hall of Famers Hoyt Wilhelm (49) and Phil Niekro (46) as well as Charlie Hough (46).
On June 5, 1997, Wakefield lasted 8 2/3 innings against the Brewers in Milwaukee, striking out a career-high 10 batters while walking seven, before he was lifted with one out to go in a 2-1 win.
Newspaper reports the next day noted he threw 168 pitches, but evidently the official tally added one more pitch, as 169 is the number listed by baseball-reference.com.
Wakefield told reporters afterward that he didn't have his best knuckleball that day so he threw more curves and (ahem) fastballs than usual, throwing the knuckler only 75 percent of the time. According to the accounts of the game, Wakefield made little mention of his pitch count.
Jimy Williams, who was managing the Sox at the time, said, "I never asked what the pitch count was.''
That was only the second-most pitches Wakefield has thrown in an outing. On April 27, 1993, while with Pittsburgh, he threw 172 in 10 innings in a 6-2 win over the Braves.
Those two games rank as most pitches thrown by any pitcher in a game since 1989, when Orel Hershiser threw 169 in 11 innings.
On Sunday, Wakefield demonstrated early he was not going to have a repeat performance. His first 10 pitches were strikes, as he struck out Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart on three pitches apiece and had Ryan Braun 0-and-2 before Braun fouled off two pitches, took a ball, then popped out to Dustin Pedroia in shallow right.
According to Bill Ballou of the Worcester Telegram, Pedro Martinez is the only pitcher in Red Sox history to fan the game's first three batters in the minimum nine pitches.
"You've got to get a little lucky," Wakefield said.
It has been to the immense good fortune of the Red Sox that Wakefield has rebounded from one of the most miserable seasons of his career, one in which he was unceremoniously dropped from the rotation and won a career-low four games while posting a ghastly 5.34 ERA. Wakefield made little secret of his unhappiness with the way he was being used, having been an All-Star the year before.
But this spring, he had come to terms with a role that called for him to pitch mostly out of the bullpen, only to find himself taking a regular turn in the rotation after John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka went on the DL. Matsuzaka has been lost for the season after undergoing Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery.
And now, with Wakefield having won four of his past five decisions, and with Clay Buchholz being placed on the disabled list with a lower back strain, Wakefield is assured of remaining in the rotation at least for the time being.
"I've got a more consistent job right now," he said. "I think last year, there were a lot of inconsistencies in what I was doing: bullpen, start, bullpen, start, back to bullpen. So it's nice to have a routine and get some repetition on working on some stuff on the side versus hoping it's there when the game starts out of the bullpen. It's been a pleasure so far."
A pleasure that has been shared by manager Terry Francona and the Red Sox.
"I think his role is exactly what he's doing," Francona said. "We talked about it going in, that there were probably going to be starts for him, we don't know when they're going to be. And because of his versatility, he's filled that role and he's filled it unbelievably."
Wakefield was warming up when the Boston Bruins entered Fenway Park riding on duck boats, but he did have a chance to meet the B's and have his picture taken with the Stanley Cup in the clubhouse beforehand. "Phenomenal," he said of what little he did see of the ceremonies. "Brought back a lot of memories of 2004 and 2007."
See? Wakefield remembers the important stuff. But unlike David Ortiz, who gleefully hoisted the Cup in the clubhouse, Wakefield kept his distance.
"Not touching it," he said. "Not my trophy. That's theirs."
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.