Knuckleballer has strong outing in win

Updated: October 9, 2003, 8:58 AM ET
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- On the eve of the 11th anniversary of his brilliant playoff debut, Tim Wakefield was even better.

Boston's knuckleballer baffled the New York Yankees, allowing two runs and two hits in six innings and leaving in the seventh with a five-run lead in Game 1 of the AL championship series.

The Red Sox won 5-2 Wednesday night to regain home field advantage from the team it couldn't catch for the AL East title.

"I felt good tonight warming up, but there have been days when I felt good warming up and you get on the mound and it's been totally different," said Wakefield, 3-0 at Yankee Stadium this year.

As a rookie with Pittsburgh in 1992, Wakefield had two complete-game victories in the NLCS against Atlanta after going 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA in the regular season.

On Oct. 9, 1992, he allowed two runs and five hits for a 3-2 victory over Tom Glavine. Then, on three days' rest, he allowed four runs and nine hits to beat Glavine again. But Atlanta won the series.

Boston general manager Theo Epstein was a sophomore at Yale and saw Wakefield on television in that series.

"I always had a fascination with knuckleballers," Epstein said. "He was dominant."

Boston reliever Mike Timlin admired Wakefield's work before coming in to pitch a perfect eighth.

"It's like trying to hit a butterfly with a boat paddle," Timlin said. "It depends how strong you are swinging a boat paddle."

And Doug Mirabelli, Jason Varitek's backup who catches when Wakefield pitches, said that, considering the magnitude of the game, it was Wakefield's best performance of the season.

"It was definitely a different look about him," said Mirabelli, who felt Wakefield got into a good rhythm warming up before the game. "It was businesslike and it was confident."

Not bad for a first baseman whose struggles as a position player led to his conversion to a pitcher in 1989.

After 1992, he didn't win another playoff game until Wednesday. He was 0-3 in six games since then, giving up 20 runs in 16 1/3 innings. In 1999, he even was left off Boston's playoff roster despite making 49 appearances in the regular season.

But he said that didn't make Wednesday's win -- the first this season in which he allowed two hits -- any sweeter.

"Unfortunately, the decision was made to take me off the roster," he said, "but it's a totally different year this year."

In Game 2 of this year's AL Division Series against Oakland, he allowed five runs in the second inning before settling down and going six innings. But Boston lost 5-1 to Barry Zito.

Wakefield was spectacular on Wednesday against a club he was mediocre against throughout his career with a 6-8 record and 5.08 ERA. It was another high point in a season in which he finally won a regular spot in the rotation, making 33 starts and two relief appearances.

In the past, his versatility and his ability to pitch with little rest had him moving between the rotation and the bullpen even though he preferred to start.

On Wednesday, Wakefield struck out two and walked two. He retired the first four batters then allowed one-out singles to Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui in the second. But Wakefield got the next two outs to end the inning and start a stretch of retiring 14 straight batters.

In the seventh, his knuckleball started to wander and he walked the first two hitters, Jason Giambi and Bernie Williams. With two lefty batters coming up, he was replaced by left-hander Alan Embree.

Boston had a long top of the seventh and the game was delayed by the singing of "God Bless America" before the bottom half.

"That's a good opportunity for a pitcher to kind of stiffen up a little bit," Little said. "We foresaw that and we were ready for it."

But the strategy failed as Posada doubled to score Giambi, and Matsui hit a sacrifice fly to bring in Williams. The threat ended when Aaron Boone and Nick Johnson both flied to center.

Gabe Kapler, who joined Boston this season, remembers trying to hit against Wakefield.

"We always tried to wait as long as we could to see the pitch," Kapler said. "But if his knuckleball is on and he's throwing it for strikes, you're not going to have a good day. I don't care who you are.

"You hope he doesn't have his 'A' game and tonight it definitely seemed like he had his 'A' game."


Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press

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