OAKLAND -- After delivering the usual dismissals of regret, and team-first mantras, Tim Wakefield stood in front of his locker at Oakland Coliseum and took a second to soak it all in.
"So close," he said.
And it was. Wakefield took a no-hitter into the eighth inning, and wasn't finally derailed until Kurt Suzuki lined an 0-1, waist-high knuckler into left field.
"But that was fun," the 42-year-old added.
And it was. Just as it was when Curt Schilling came one out away from a no-hitter on the very same field two years before, on a get-away afternoon game not unlike the one which ended in an 8-2 Red Sox victory over the A's, Wednesday.
In fact, the scene was eerily similar to the Schilling game -- which will partially be remembered for WEEI.com's own shaking off Jason Varitek before giving up a two-out single to Shannon Stewart in the ninth. Not only were both scenes set in woeful times for the Sox, with both teams having lost six of seven games, on a sun-drenched home of the A's, but the over-the-top smiles after the game could have been mirror images.
In each case the afternoon was sort of therapeutic, both for the team and the pitcher.
It wasn't as if Wakefield hadn't been down this road before, he had. In 1995 he had ventured down the same 7 1/3-inning, no-hit path against the same Athletics. But it was on June 19, 2001 when he came the closest, getting one out in the ninth before facing Tampa Bay Randy Winn.
The Suzuki hit was a no-doubter. Winn's came with Sox third baseman Chris Stynes drawn in, allowing a fisted pop-up to sail just over the fielder's head, not even into the Tropicana Field outfield, but far enough to break up Wakefield's best chance at a no-hitter.
But this one was special. It was the perfect storm for Wakefield -- one which started with a promise to Red Sox manager Terry Francona before the game that he would save a bullpen which had gone 10 2/3 innings the night before, and finished with his first complete game win in nearly four years. And, to top thing off, it just so happened that he was fitted with a uniform displaying his age on his back for this one day (thanks to the league-wide recognition of Jackie Robinson).
Life was good for Wakefield this day. Life was good for the Red Sox. And life is good when we learned five solid things, as was the case in the series finale ...
1) WAKEFIELD WAS GOOD, AND SO WAS HIS CATCHER
The Red Sox starter threw five fastballs and not a single curve. That means that George Kottaras called for 106 knuckleballs without hesitation or incident. It was about throwing the pitch that the hitters would miss, not throwing the pitch you hope the catcher doesn't miss.
Wakefield was on (throwing 31 of 39 pitches for strikes through five innings would suggest as much), but so was his backstop.
"His stuff was moving all over the place," said Kottaras. "He was very efficient early, and getting hitters to put the ball in play early. It was right off in the bullpen, he was around the zone, and the ball wa moving left and right, and up and down. It was great."
A big tip of the chapeau has to go to catching instructor Gary Tuck, who has been schooling Kottaras in the art of catching the knuckleball. First came the technique, and then hours and hours of practice using the hard-to-find knuckleball pitching machine.
Typically Kottaras is taught to not present a normal target, instead leaving his glove hand dangling to the side a bit as to stay flexible when an adjustment has to be made. It is Wakefield's job to put it in a place the hitters are going to offer.
Wednesday that wasn't a problem.
In the first two innings the A's put the first pitch they saw in play, while Wakefield came away with first-pitch strikes to five of the six hitters. In fact, through the first seven innings the Sox starter tossed a first-pitch strike to 17 of his 22 opposing batters.
"We needed exactly what he gave us," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona of Wakefield. "He poked his head in my office earlier today in one of the moments when the door wasn't shut, and kind of just said in passing, 'I understand my responsibilities', and he didn't say it flippantly. I think after five innings he was at 39 (pitches). That's some kind of attacking the strike zone and getting results. I'm stating the obvious by saying we desperately needed that outing from him. It was awesome. He did a great job."
2) WAKEFIELD'S FIELDERS GO TO GREAT LENGTHS
As is the case with most near, or completed, no-hitters, there are a bushel of defensive gems to keep things spicy. In this go-round Nick Green stole the show by catching Jack Cust's soft liner in the seventh inning when it looked like the ball was going to safely nestle into shallow left-center field.
Green darted back, and then at the last minute had to contort his body in the opposite direction to make up for the ball's curving trajectory.
"I went to my left first, and then he inside-outed it so I turned, looked and thought, 'Gosh, whatever I do I have to catch it.'," said Green. "I've had that feeling where you have to make the play, although I don't know if it was during a no-hitter. You have to make the play because this was a no-hitter. You just have to make the play. I thought I was just going to run and catch it, but then it kind of faded."
But as good as the Green play was, along with a few catches by center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury on a full sprint, it was the analysis made by left fielder Jason Bay which painted the best picture when it came to the fielders' mind-set.
"The funny thing was that we were talking afterward and the sun was right there for a lot of the game," Bay said. "If the ball got in the sun I was thinking I just had to let it hit me. I've got to do something to make it an error. Usually (the sun) takes two or three innings in each field, but we were going so fast it wasn't moving."
3) MIKE LOWELL'S BAD PLAY DIDN'T MAKE IT A BAD DAY
When Suzuki's routine grounder to Lowell leading off the sixth inning was misplayed by the man with the best fielding percentage of any third baseman in the history of the game, most everybody was shocked. But none quite as much as Lowell, himself.
The situation was baffling for Lowell, who is regularly using the glove he utilized as a back-up last season. But, in the mind of the third baseman, it didn't matter how the miscue came about. All that mattered was that Wakefield now wasn't going to be able to become the 18th pitcher in major league history to pitch a complete game, the first baserunner might interrupt the hurler's momentum, and Lowell could end up in the history books as one of three other fielders whose errors cost a perfect game.
"The ground ball was one that my son could catch and I just wanted to show him that anybody can make a mistake. I wanted to set a good example," Lowell said. "I wish I had a really good explanation and I don't. It was as routine as possible and I wanted to make sure to catch it so good that I didn't. If there was a little hole under third base I could fit in my body would have wanted to crawl under there. I was like, 'Don't tell me just because of that play I ruined a perfect game.' I guess it all worked out in the end."
Life went on, and so did Wakefield. And when it was over, Lowell could laugh about the error, while also enjoying the recollection of the two-run homer which gave the Red Sox a much-needed 2-0 lead after two innings.
"I started seeing the ball better yesterday," Lowell said. "I just reacted well. I have to be happy with that. The last two days I've seen the ball a lot better."
4) TITO'S DOOR WAS CLOSED SO HIS OPTIONS WOULD BE OPEN
The wheels started turning early and often in the Red Sox' manager's office, Wednesday morning. First up was what to do with Daisuke Matsuzaka, the pitcher who gave up five runs in one inning, throwing 43 pitches before leaving with a "fatigued shoulder". The answer came in the form of the announcement that he was going on the 15-day disabled list with a "mild strain of the right shoulder", marking the second time in as many seasons Matsuzaka has taken a respite via the DL.
After a moment of confusion late Tuesday night -- with Matsuzaka refuting Francona's analysis that he had soreness and fatigue in his shoulder -- all parties seemed on the same page.
“We DL’d Dice-K. Obviously we needed to speak to him before we did something like that. Theo (Epstein) and I had talked last night and this morning and contrary to what Dice-K said last night, he understands it," said Francona before a game that would be exactly one minute shy of cutting the previous night's game-time in half. "I think sometimes guys say things when they’re in the [heat of battle], trying to compete. We just want him to be able to be Dice-K. Not part of Dice-K. We’ll put him on the DL, we’ll have him looked at Friday and then we’ll put our heads together and see what’s the best way we can get him to make all his starts and be good.”
That move paved the way for the wild and wacky day of Hunter Jones, who entered the big leagues for the first time, but 20 minutes after the game had ended thanks to a delayed cross country flight.
At least he got a good meal out of it.
“What do you call that, the best intentions? It was a heck of an effort,” said Francona after the game. “He’s going to have an interesting day. He’s going to have a free steak on the way home.”
Then there was shorstop Jed Lowrie, who reported to WEEI.com's Alex Speier that there are three scenarios once the two cortisone shots he received in his ailing left wrist from Baltimore hand specialist Tom Graham subsides.
“One is that the cortisone didn’t work, and surgery is needed, whenver the cortisone wears off and it stops feeling good. Two is that it’s a short-term fix, that it feels good for a little while kind of like it did this offseason through spring training, and then the surgery is needed when that’s done. Or, it’s a long-term solution,” said Lowrie. “We decided that there was no reason to rush right into surgery, especially when you’re talking about a wrist, when there are more avenues to explore that are possibly less invasive such as a cortisone shot.”
According to Francona, the hope is to put Lowrie in a splint for five days, have him then start strengthening the wrist before beginning baseball activities in two weeks time.
5) SERIES WAS A SLAP IN THE FACE FOR ORTIZ
David Ortiz faced 76 pitches during the Red Sox' series with the A's, a number which averages out to 5.07 per every plate appearance. Evidently, the Sox' DH not only took stock of the sheer quantity, but also the impression each at-bat left behind.
Ortiz managed just 2 hits in 14 at-bats, walking once and fouling off a boatload of pitches in the process. This series, he said, was much more of a wake-up call than he could ever imagine.
"This series showed me a little bit of what it's going to be like. I just have to get used to it, the pitches that I see. It was eye-opening," said Ortiz, referencing how many off-speed pitches he saw, a fact that was put on display in the series' first game when he got just eight fastballs of 23 pitches. "I think being caught in situations where you have the hitter's count, but you still can't count on getting something. It's an adjustment."