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BOB RYAN

Wakefield not close to knuckling under

Tim Wakefield is closing in on 41, but, like many knuckleball pitchers, he's confident he's got some good years left. (STEVE NESIUS/REUTERS)

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Tim Wakefield is a knuckleballer.

The normal rules do not apply.

Sure, he'll turn 41 Aug. 2, but so what? When your out pitch is a knuckleball, 40 is the new 35.

A little history, just in case you don't believe me.

Joe Niekro

Last pitch: age 43

Wins after age 40: 35

Charlie Hough

Last pitch: age 46

Wins after 40: 67

Bonus: 318 innings pitched at age 45

Hoyt Wilhelm

Last pitch: age 49

Saves after 40: 129

Phil Niekro

Last pitch: age 48

Wins after 40: 128

Bonus: 220 innings, age 46; 210 1/3 innings, age 47.

You think Tim Wakefield isn't aware of all this? He may not have the exact numbers at his fingertips, but he knows, all right.

"Absolutely," he says. "I know knuckleball pitchers can go deep into their 40s. I'd like to do that."

If Jonathan Papelbon is the Porsche, Daisuke Matsuzaka is the Ferrari, Josh Beckett is the Triumph, and Curt Schilling is the Lincoln Continental of the Red Sox staff, then Tim Wakefield is the trusty Volvo wagon. He's always been the guy a Red Sox manager can count on to, as they say, "eat up innings." As a full-time starter from 2003-05, he averaged 205 1/3 innings.

Then came 2006. The trusty Volvo wagon spent some unaccustomed time in the shop. For only the second time in his 14-year big league career, Wakefield went on the disabled list. True to the Knuckleball Society Manual, the ailment had nothing to do with his arm. He watched from July 22 through Sept. 13 with a stress fracture in his rib cage. And he was not happy about it. The 140 innings were his fewest since 1999, when he made 17 starts to go along with 32 relief appearances.

"It hurt me inside to be on the DL," he says. "With all we were going through, it was frustrating not being able to help."

He has always prided himself on being a good teammate. "I missed things like high-fiving David [Ortiz] after hitting a home run," Wakefield reports.

Wakefield is ready to help this year. "I feel very good," he says. "I usually get back in the gym by Nov. 15 to start getting ready for the following season. This time I waited about two more weeks. Once I started lifting, I was pleased with the way I felt, and when I started throwing I knew it wasn't going to bother me again."

He has gone to the post twice thus far, surrendering two runs (one earned) in five innings. That includes yesterday's three innings of shutout ball against the Mets, whose heads must have been spinning after having spent three innings waving at Wake's knuckleball, only to be confronted with the somewhat speedier offerings of Papelbon, whom some of them heard more than they saw.

This juxtaposition of knuckleball/fastball will be a regular feature of the proposed Sox 2007 rotation, since Wakefield is the only one of Terry Francona's five starters who does not feature a 90-mile-per-hour heater (or more). Red Sox managers have always felt that placing Wakefield in the midst of hard throwers worked well on both sides of the equation. Now it won't matter much where he's placed, although pairing him with Papelbon might provide the maximum separations of pitching styles and speeds.

"I think it works," Wakefield says. "But you'll have to ask the hitters whether the different styles bother them."

Tim Wakefield really is one of the most interesting stories in Red Sox history. May 27 will mark his 12th anniversary with the team, which makes him the true Mr. Red Sox by a wide margin. While it's undeniably true that he has never again been as good as he was during his first 2 1/2 months with the team -- 14-1 with what seemed like weekly flirtations with no-hitters -- it's also undeniably true that no one else has, either. Anywhere.

That was, without question, the greatest prolonged stretch of knuckleballing in history, and it stands up to the best comparable 2 1/2-month stretch put together by anybody in the last dozen years, and that includes Pedro, Randy, Maddux, or anyone else you can think of.

That almost inexplicable greatness vanished, Wakefield settled into his role as a valuable all-purpose pitcher who has started, supplied middle relief, and even closed with distinction. He ranks third on the all-time Red Sox list in wins (137, trailing ancient and modern legends Cy Young and Roger Clemens) and innings (same duo). He trails only Clemens in Red Sox starts (382) and only Bob Stanley in Red Sox appearances (443). He is the consummate professional, requiring absolutely no maintenance.

Assuming he can throw his customary 200 innings, here is what we know: There will be good times and there will be bad times. He will have spells where he'll be unhittable and there will be games of glorified BP. But even on the bad days, he will save the bullpen, as he's done countless times before, and no matter what his final win-loss tally, he will be spoken of in glowing terms by Francona.

And we should be saying this for next year and the year after that and the year after that. At least.

"Charlie Hough told me he didn't quit because he couldn't throw anymore," Wakefield says. "It was because he could no longer cover first base."

In other words, old knuckleballers never die. One day they just topple off the mound.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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