Red Sox 42-year-old knuckleballer cools off A’s
April 15, 2009
OAKLAND ” When Tim Wakefield stopped by Terry Francona’s office Wednesday morning, he already realized the Boston Red Sox were staggering. They had lost six of seven while struggling to hit, and their bullpen was gassed after pitching 11 innings last night.
“I understand the circumstances of today,” Wakefield recalled telling his manager. “No matter what, don’t take me out.”
Francona never even had to consider it. His 42-year-old knuckleballer helped the Red Sox get a whole lot better with one of the best performances of his long career.
Wakefield took a no-hitter into the eighth inning in a masterful display of his unusual art, finishing with a four-hitter Wednesday in Boston’s slump-snapping 8-2 victory over the Oakland Athletics.
Wakefield (1-1) got within five outs of the first no-hitter of his 17-season major league career, nearly becoming the second-oldest pitcher to accomplish the feat after Nolan Ryan, who did it twice when he was older than Wakefield’s 42 years, 256 days.
Kurt Suzuki broke it up with a one-out single to left for the A’s, and Landon Powell had an RBI single later in the inning. Wakefield also gave up Matt Holliday’s run-scoring double in the ninth, but escaped one last jam before getting hugs and congratulations from each of his teammates.
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“They were really aggressive early, and then something kind of clicked in the second or third inning,” Wakefield said. “I’m not disappointed. Obviously (a no-hitter) is something that’s great to try to get, but the most important thing was to preserve our bullpen.”
With an off-day Thursday, consider the bullpen preserved ” and a potential early-season crisis avoided.
Mike Lowell hit a two-run homer in the second inning and J.D. Drew added a three-run drive during the six-run eighth for the Red Sox, who were off to their worst start since 1996. Boston slumped to 2-6 Tuesday night with a 6-5 loss in which starter Daisuke Matsuzaka couldn’t make it to the second inning, forcing six relievers to work into the 12th in frigid Oakland temperatures.
“You have to be more economical when you have to go deep into the game,” Wakefield said, explaining his plan to go straight at hitters, particularly in the late innings. “You have to throw more strikes, and I was concentrating on that. I was just thankful that I got to the eighth very easily.”
Although Wakefield has been a dependable member of Boston’s rotation since 1995, he has never allowed fewer than three hits in a complete game ” though he once took a no-hitter into the ninth at Tampa Bay, a game he recalled only vaguely. He also didn’t pitch particularly well down the stretch last season during the Red Sox’s run to the AL championship series, failing to get out of the third inning of Game 4 against Tampa Bay.
Rarely cracking 70 mph on the Coliseum radar gun, Wakefield retired Oakland’s first 15 hitters, mostly on harmless grounders and popups. Suzuki reached first on an error by Lowell at third base to open the sixth, but Wakefield easily got out of the inning.
“I had to mess up (the perfect game), but I thought something special was going to happen,” Lowell said. “We needed something like that, and Tim came through for us.”
Wakefield walked Mark Ellis to open the eighth, and Suzuki rapped a single to left. Fans of both teams gave a loud ovation to the knuckleballer, who stranded two A’s on base moments later.
“We hit the ball hard off him, and they made a few good plays,” Ellis said. “The way the ball moves, you think it’s going away, and all of a sudden it breaks back over the plate. A knuckleball is kind of a flip of the coin: some days it’s on. You don’t see it very often.”
Wakefield, who hadn’t won in seven games and five starts in Oakland since September 1999, threw his first complete game since May.
Wakefield’s brilliance overshadowed Brett Anderson (0-2), Oakland’s 21-year-old rookie left-hander. He looked sharp in just his second major league appearance, allowing just five hits and two walks through seven innings.
“He’s throwing up zeros, and you’re trying to put up zeros,” Anderson said after commiserating with fellow A’s starter Trevor Cahill, who lost a 1-0 decision to Seattle’s Erik Bedard last Sunday. “We need some luck, but as long as we keep pitching like that, we’ll be fine.”
Before the game, Boston put Matsuzaka on the 15-day disabled list with a mild right shoulder strain. Matsuzaka has struggled in two starts this season after winning three games and the MVP award at the World Baseball Classic.
Lowell connected for his second homer of the season after Jason Bay’s two-out single in the second. Lowell’s fly landed on the shelf above the left-field scoreboard that divides the stands from the field, getting out of the park by a few inches.
Orlando Cabrera and Jack Cust both came close to getting hits for Oakland in the seventh, but Boston’s defense rescued Wakefield. Drew made a running grab of Cabrera’s drive to the outfield, and Nick Green made a twisting leap to snag Cust’s bloop to shallow center.
After David Ortiz hit an eighth-inning double for his first extra-base hit of the season, Drew put his second homer of the season deep into the right field stands. Green and Jacoby Ellsbury hit run-scoring singles later in the eighth.
Notes: Boston RHP John Smoltz and OF Mark Kotsay are headed to extended spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., to begin their injury comebacks. Smoltz is to throw to live hitters for the first time Saturday. … Francona also said SS Julio Lugo could rejoin the Red Sox next week. He hasn’t played this season after right knee surgery. … Anderson, who lost his major league debut against Seattle last Friday, pitched for the U.S. team at the Beijing Olympics.