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A sunshine state for Wakefield

It's up, it's good for Tim Wakefield, who allowed the Devil Rays one run and six hits in six innings to earn his 12th victory. It's up, it's good for Tim Wakefield, who allowed the Devil Rays one run and six hits in six innings to earn his 12th victory. (SCOTT AUDETTE/REUTERS)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- No more bellyaching about Tim Wakefield.

After 13 seasons in the Red Sox organization, you know what he is -- dependable, an innings eater, a change of pace, and more importantly, a winner. Given that he's had a decision in all 21 starts this season, it's not out of the realm of possibility Wakefield could win 20 games.

"Twenty? That would be great," said Wakefield. "I think every starting pitcher in the league wants to win 20 games at some point, but really my goals at the beginning of the year are always the same and that's to give the team innings and help them win games.

"The goal is to win a World Series and that's always been what I've been about."

E-mails often trickle in that the Wakefield-Doug Mirabelli tandem must finally go. Why? When Wakefield's pitching well, there's rarely acknowledgment of what he does for the staff. After last night's 7-1 victory over the Devil Rays, he's 12-9 with a 4.59 ERA. Do you know how many teams would love to have a starter with 12 wins before August? A lot. Sure, when he's not going well he can be frustrating to watch, but when he's on, he frustrates the opposition.

If you haven't learned to ride the Wakefield waves by now, just hand in your Red Sox Nation membership card. Wakefield is up at times and down at times, but during the course of 162 games, and over a career in which he's 163-143, 149-131 with the Red Sox, Wakefield has done a lot more good than bad.

"From the other side for many years we didn't want to face Wakefield," said former Devil Ray Julio Lugo. "In this place he was nasty. He'd mess you up for a few weeks. Nobody really likes to face that stuff because sometimes you can hit it, but you know when it's dancing, it messes with your head."

There was a lot of messing going on last night. Wakefield loves to pitch here because it's a controlled environment, which is why his 17 wins against the Devil Rays (eight at Tropicana) are the most against the franchise by any pitcher, one more than the Yankees' Mike Mussina. Wakefield hasn't lost in 18 career games (12 starts) at The Trop and he's 8-0 with three saves and a 2.33 ERA.

He's also had one of those quirky years where he leads the majors in decisions, tying Tom Brewer as the only Sox pitcher in the last 50 years to have decisions in their first 21 starts. In 2003, Wakefield had 15 no-decisions.

Wakefield achieved 12 wins quicker than he has at any time in his career. In 1998, when he won 17, he reached 12 on July 28.

"I'm feeling a lot better this year than last, for sure," said Wakefield. "Last year, I had the stress fracture and I wasn't able to do a lot of things well. Dougie and I had a good game plan coming in where I mixed in some curveballs and threw fastballs to certain hitters. It just clocked pretty well."

Although his back stiffened in the fifth inning, Wakefield went six and threw 101 pitches, leaving with a 3-1 lead. Manager Terry Francona went with Manny Delcarmen's 95- to 97-mile-per-hour fastball to disrupt the Devil Rays.

Francona praised Wakefield for his pitching early in the game, when the Sox couldn't score. It wasn't until Kevin Youkilis hit a three-run home run in the sixth that Wakefield had some breathing room.

"The way he pitched allowed us to stay patient [at the plate]," Francona said. "We were patient and got base runners."

Wakefield is open about the fact a dome is a good place for him to pitch. It's scary to think how well he would do making half his starts in a dome.

He was a bit surprised to learn he had so many wins against the Devil Rays. "It's not an easy win because they have a good lineup over there," he said. "I tried to keep us in the game as long as possible."

When and if Red Sox prospects make the majors, at some point a 40-something knuckleballer will be expendable. But when you have someone who can trick the opposition and flank him with hard throwers, the contrast is advantageous. That's the way the Sox have always thought. Dan Duquette picked Wakefield off the scrap heap in 1995 and he saved the Red Sox' season, leading them to the American League East title.

There were five scouts at the game last night filing reports. You'd love to see what they say . . . "He throws a knuckleball over and over again." It is all feel. If Wakefield has the feel, he's going to be successful, if he doesn't, hitters can knock him around. But it seems Wakefield and Mirabelli have developed strategies for each team -- places they can sneak a fastball and places they can throw a curve.

Lugo believes in those situations, hitters are fooled completely and in the back of their minds they think they might get that 75-m.p.h. fastball, only to be fooled by the knuckleball.

"It just seems his ball is moving a lot more lately," said Lugo. "For a hitter, that's all timing and patience and it's just hard to discipline yourself to hit that pitch. It can be very frustrating because you think you can clobber it . . . but then you miss it."

Pitching coach John Farrell is monitoring Wakefield's pitch counts, because he realizes Wakefield can get tired just like anyone else.

After all, we should know him. Save the e-mails. Wakefield is here to stay. There'll be a lot more good times than bad. We know that after 13 years.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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