It had been a long, long time coming for Tim Wakefield.
When he last took the mound against Oakland on July 8, Wakefield was 42 years old, and putting the final touches on an All-Star first half with a six-inning, three-run, 10-hit effort that earned him his 11th and final victory prior to the break. The win left the Red Sox in first by a game over the Yankees in the American League East.
In the 48 days and 41 games since that time, Wakefield had turned 43 and gone on the disabled list for the third time in four years, and the Sox had fallen six games behind New York in the division. As a group, the team’s starters had gone 14-15 with a 4.85 ERA. Just once – on Aug. 13, when Clay Buchholz did so in a loss – had a pitcher not named Lester or Beckett gone as many as seven innings.
The Sox had reason to believe that the return of Wakefield from the disabled list, where he had resided while dealing with a lower back strain and related issues in his calf, would help to stabilize a disastrous back half of the rotation.
The value of Wakefield’s reliability became quite evident in his absence. A pitcher who gave his club at least six innings in 14 of his 17 first-half outings was clearly missed when John Smoltz and Brad Penny were regularly getting hammered.
Even so, it would have been naïve to expect Wakefield to jump into his first major-league start in seven weeks and return to the form that netted him an All-Star game. Even after a pair of rehab outings for Triple-A Pawtucket, the Sox measured their expectations about the pitcher’s return.
Yet Wakefield defied any uncertainty about his contributions. He was, in a word, masterful in his return to the mound. His knuckleball – delivered with remarkable precision and dastardly movement – elicited pathetic contact or swings and misses from a thoroughly befuddled White Sox team.
Wakefield started the game by throwing 17 straight pitches for strikes. In the first three innings, he garnered nine swings and misses. For the game, he threw first pitch strikes to 20 of the 27 batters he faced, did not go to a single 1-1 count all game, and proved little short of remarkable.
“It’s like an art form,” marveled reliever Daniel Bard. “The way the ball dances out there like it was tonight, it was pretty amazing.”
So, too, were the results. Wakefield logged seven innings, allowing just one run on six hits, walking one and striking out three. When the White Sox made contact, it was typically on cued grounders or dinky infield pop-ups. Just seven balls all night made it into the outfield.
Though he absorbed a no-decision, Wakefield’s role in the Red Sox’ 3-2 walk-off win over the White Sox (recap) was undeniable, and, in the words of manager Terry Francona, “unbelievable.”
“I don’t know how he did it. That was more than you could possibly expect,” said Francona. “You expect somebody to maybe have a little bit of rust and say we’ll give him a couple starts to shake off the rust. That was phenomenal.”
“I don’t know,” added pitching coach John Farrell, “if there’s enough to say about what he did tonight.”
Wakefield credited the fact that he made a second rehab start in Triple A Pawtucket for his sharp return. He wanted to ensure that when he returned, he would be ready to take on a sufficient workload to ease, rather than add to, the strain on the bullpen.
Once he had logged 5.2 innings for the PawSox on Aug. 21, Wakefield felt that he was ready to help his club. The biggest test that he faced was whether he could field his position.
There was a test of that proposition early, as the White Sox had a couple of swinging bunts in the first inning. The pitcher was pleased with his mobility as he moved in pursuit of those balls, and with the fact that the calf injury in no way impaired what he was trying to accomplish on the mound.
“I was tested for sure in the first inning, but in my mind, I think I passed the test,” said Wakefield. “My mindset was to go as deep into the game as I could…We’rein the middle of the pennant race. I just can’t go out there and go four innings. I want to contribute as much as I can.”
That is a refrain that has been common for Wakefield throughout his Red Sox career. More often than not, he has been able to answer the proverbial bell and deliver what his team has needed: a steady presence who provides innings and who knows how to compete and give his team – more often than not – a chance to win, regardless of whether his knuckleball is willing to cooperate or not.
On Wednesday, Wakefield flashed an ability to help provide solidity to the back of the Boston rotation. He also showed that, at a time of year when his shoulder has limited him in recent years, his mid-summer break may have left him with enough bullets to offer a strong contribution down the stretch.
“Over the last three years, there was a timeout needed, for lack of a better term,” said Farrell. “(This year), he was afforded that through a different means. We’ll gladly take seven innings, one run here for every start the rest of the year that he makes.”
Amidst such giddy pronouncements came a reminder of the pitcher’s value. Entering the season, there were public cries for removing Wakefield from the starting rotation. It would be hard to find a Red Sox fan who is advocating such a move now. Instead, Wakefield is regarded as a pivotal factor in whether the team will be able to achieve its postseason ambitions.
Here are four other lessons from a night when David Ortiz further cemented his place in Red Sox history:
VICTOR MARTINEZ ACED HIS FIRST TEST
The first pitch wasn’t exactly promising. At 7:13 p.m., Victor Martinez commenced his education in the knuckleball when Tim Wakefield’s wobbler – a called strike – clanged off his glove.
“It was the very first pitch and I thought like, ‘Uh oh, here we come,’” Martinez admitted afterwards. “But things got pretty good after that.”
That would seem to be an understatement. After that inauspicious start, Martinez proved virtually perfect over the rest of the night.
He caught every other knuckleball that Wakefield threw, on a night when the pitch was conducting itself in a particularly ornery fashion. While the White Sox hitters made almost no solid contact with the pitch, Martinez seemed very much in sync with its dance technique.
“He handled him flawlessly,” remarked Farrell. “(It) looked like he’d been catching him for not only this year, but for many years. He just throws a first baseman’s glove on, goes back there and receives a knuckleball. It’s like he sat in a rocking chair and caught everyone that he threw.”
As Farrell suggested, Martinez – who was signed by the Indians as a shortstop due to what the pitching coach (and former Indians farm director) described as “exceptional hands” – elected to use his first baseman’s glove to catch the pitcher. He experimented with some knuckleball catcher’s mitts in Wakefield’s collection, but felt that he had greater freedom with his hand while sporting the leather he wields at first base.
The formula worked as well as Martinez and Wakefield could have hoped. Martinez was able to apply the lessons offered by bullpen coach and catching instructor Gary Tuck, staying back on the ball rather than reaching for it, and focusing simply on catching it rather than framing it. The techniques took, and Martinez embraced his challenge.
“I’ve got to tell you I had a lot of fun,” Martinez said, uttering words that have likely never before been heard from a catcher following his first game with a big-league knuckleballer. “I think those drills I did with Gary in the bullpen helped me out a lot and all those bullpen sessions I caught for Wake helped me out a lot. I tell you what, he had a lot of movement today. Gary told me just relax and let the ball come to you and it doesn’t have to be pretty.”
Yet Martinez exhibited great skill. Even the one blemish on the night offered a form of promise. The White Sox had few baserunners last night, and did little to challenge Wakefield on the bases. Carlos Quentin – who entered last night with just one steal in 2009 – singled with one out and took off for second.
Martinez hopped quickly to his feet and had plenty on his throw, certainly enough to catch Quentin (who did not get a great jump). But he appeared to rush his throw, which sailed over second and into centerfielder.
(The Sox nearly gunned down Quentin as he tried to advance to third, but the ChiSox left fielder knocked the ball free of Kevin Youkilis’ glove at third. Ultimately, the play was rendered harmless when, with the infield in and one out, Wakefield elicited a groundout to third, and then a groundout to first.)
The fact that Martinez had a legitimate shot at the runner showed additional promise. But most important was the simple fact that Martinez was not defeated by his task. Instead, he conquered it, and so – even with catcher George Kottaras, Wakefield’s personal catcher in the first half, likely to return from the disabled list on Sept. 1 – the Sox can still entertain the idea of future pairings of Wakefield and Martinez.
“The fact that (Martinez) was able to catch him as fluidly as he did tonight certainly doesn’t take away from that possibility,” said Farrell.
DANIEL BARD HAS MADE AN IMPRESSION
Daniel Bard’s first victory came in overpowering fashion. The right-handed reliever delivered perhaps his most overpowering outing as a pro. Bard needed 14 pitches (13 strikes) to blitz through four outs.
He entered a tie game with two outs and a runner on third in the eighth. He blew three fastballs past Jim Thome, the last registering 101 mph on the Fenway scoreboard (though 98 mph on NESN).
“They knew he had a hole up and in on the fastball,” said Bard. “That’s what I came in and attacked.”
He remained in the game for the ninth, and struck out Jermaine Dye on three pitches, got Carlos Quentin to ground out on a slider and then got ahead of Alex Rios on the strength of a couple 100 mph heaters before breaking off a 1-2 slider that left the outfielder flailing.
It was another instance of how Bard’s role has grown in his rookie campaign. The Sox had planned on exercising caution in integrating him
It was not until his 20th big-league game, against the Royals on July 11, that Bard first entered a game with the tying or go-ahead run at the plate. It was not until his 25th appearance on July 28 that he did so in the eighth inning or later.
Now, having served an apprenticeship in the bullpen for most of the year, Bard is coming to expect involvement in higher leverage situations. And he loves it.
“Somebody’s got to eat up the innings when you’re down by five. That was me for a while. I just tried to take that role and run with it, hoping that would lead to bigger situations and it has,” said Bard. “I wanted it. Believe me.”
On Wednesday, Bard got it. Though he had generated some questions while allowing runs in six of his prior eight outings, permitting 12 hits and six walks in seven innings, he extinguished any concerns with an electric performance.
The perfect, four-out appearance positioned the 24-year-old Bard to collect his first big-league win. It also allowed the rookie to make quite an impression.
“Who’s that guy?” White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen wondered after the game. “I’d rather face (closer Jonathan) Papelbon than that guy if I was a hitter. This kid’s pretty good.”
Brad Penny confirmed via text message to WEEI.com's Rob Bradford that he had requested and was granted his release following Wednesday's game against the White Sox. The news of the pitcher's release was first reported by the Boston Herald.
Penny, signed to a one-year, $5 million deal this offseason, told the Herald that he was hoping to be released so that he would have time to sign with a contending club before Aug. 31, thereby making him eligible to pitch in the postseason.
As WEEI.com reported Tuesday, Penny was not eligible to be traded after he was claimed on trade waivers earlier this month and subsequently pulled back by the Red Sox.
Penny was available in the bullpen on Wednesday, but his clear preference has always been to remain a starter, and the Red Sox said that they did not view it as being in either the pitcher's or the team's best interests to make him a reliever. And so, with the evidence that Wakefield seems ready to reclaim his role in the rotation and the Sox having concluded last weekend that Junichi Tazawa is a more promising member of the rotation than Penny, a parting of ways seemed inevitable.
Penny told the Herald that he was grateful for his time with the Red Sox, and he has frequently credited the team's shoulder program with having restored his career. While the on-field results fell short of what he would have liked, the pitcher sounded a note of gratitude as he cut ties with the team.
"I enjoyed playing with all of the guys," Penny told the Herald. "I played for a great manager on a great team. I had a great time. I enjoyed it. I wish things had worked out better, but that happens."
DUSTIN PEDROIA IS A VERY HEADY PLAYER
Red Sox infielders had been informed before the game that they needed to be mindful of Wakefield’s potentially limited mobility. That proposition was tested early.
After a swinging bunt single towards third by White Sox rookie Gordon Beckham with one out in the top of the first, A.J. Pierzynski hit a slow roller between the pitcher’s mound and first. Casey Kotchman ranged over to field the ball, and flipped to first.
While covering first might normally have been the pitcher’s responsibility, in this case, second baseman Dustin Pedroia had cut off his route to field the ball so that he could instead be ready for Kotchman’s toss to the bag. To cover first defied years of training for Pedroia, but he was able nonetheless to have the field awareness to change course.
“Pedey made a great play there,” said Wakefield. “Our infield knows my situation and Pedey made a phenomenal play to get an out there.”
The magnitude of the play became immediately evident, when Paul Konerko followed by crushing a triple to the triangle. The blast scored one, instead of two, and the course of the game may have been changed.
BONUS THING WE LEARNED
In an act of friendly magnanimity, Junichi Tazawa asked Ramon Ramirez to cut his hair. Thursday's Red Sox starter quickly reached the conclusion that his decision was a terrible mistake, as Jessica Camerato details.