When Tim Wakefield retired, there was a chance he would be the last knuckleballer to pitch in a Red Sox uniform. They are, after all, a vanishing breed. Although R.A. Dickey of the Mets has given the knuckleball life this season, there wasn’t anyone in the Sox organization who seemed capable of throwing it.
That changed when the Sox acquired Steven Wright from the Indians at the non-waiver trade deadline July 31 in exchange for Lars Anderson.
“For me, it’s a lost art,’’ said Wright, 27, of Torrance, Calif., a self-described power pitcher who tinkered with the knuckleball before making it his primary out pitch two years ago when Double A Akron pitching coach Greg Hibbert suggested he do so during a series in New Hampshire.
“I think it’s something that might be coming around again because of what R.A. has been doing,’’ Wright said. “He’s definitely been giving the knuckleball another look, because he’s been throwing a harder knuckleball, which a lot of people haven’t seen before.
“He’s showing that you can command it, you can keep it in the strike zone, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio’s amazing, so he’s showing that it can be just as effective as somebody who’s throwing 95 [miles per hour].’’
Wright started out at Double A Portland when he was acquired by the Sox, then was promoted Aug. 8 to Triple A Pawtucket, where he made one appearance and allowed a pair of runs on five hits and one walk while striking out three in five innings. He went on the disabled list last Thursday with right shoulder tightness.
As he has developed his knuckleball, he has tried to change speeds.
He also mixes in a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a cutter, and a curve, but relies on the knuckleball about “75-80 percent’’ of the time.
Asked what was the most challenging aspect of throwing the knuckleball, Wright replied, “Just repeating it, controlling it — just controlling the starting point and staying within the mechanics.
“Sometimes I can get to where I want to get back to when I was a conventional pitcher, which was a power guy, and once you start to overthrow the pitch, it starts spinning and you’re going against what you’re trying to do, which is to kill the spin on the ball and just keep it in the zone.
“As long as I can stay under control, usually I’m able to repeat it and just keep it in the zone.”
It is a pitch that has enabled a select group of pitchers to define — and even prolong — their careers.
“When I talk to Charlie [Hough] and when I talk to Wakefield and those guys, the idea is the same: kill the spin, keep it in the zone, change speeds,’’ Wright said.
“So far it’s gotten me here, so it’s pretty exciting. I never thought I’d ever be throwing a knuckleball in professional baseball.”
Salute to a soldier
Before Sunday’s 2-1 loss to Hudson Valley at LeLacheur Park, the Lowell Spinners recognized catcher J.T. Watkins, who was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army, on the occasion of his final game with the team before his departure for Fort Stewart, Ga.
Watkins, who was an All-Patriot League first-team selection last season, was the first of two Army players selected in the 2012 draft, taken by the Red Sox in the 10th round.
Watkins, the son of Red Sox scout Danny Watkins, played in 17 games with the Spinners, batting .200. He wrapped up his first professional season by going 0 for 3 Sunday, but made a heads-up defensive play in the ninth when he turned a throwing error by third baseman Matthew Gedman into an out at second after backing up first base.
“J.T. was able to play for the majority of the summer and get real good experience and get his feet wet in our system,’’ said Ben Crockett, Red Sox director of player development. “Now he’ll leave and honor his country and serve, and hopefully when that service is over we’ll be able to talk about baseball again.’’
Watkins will be placed on the reserve/restricted list and can apply for a special release from the Department of Defense after two years of active duty. He would then serve the remainder of his commitment in the reserves while resuming his playing career.
Prior gets the hook
Mark Prior, who was attempting to resurrect his injury-plagued career after last pitching in the majors in 2006 with the Cubs, was released from his minor league contract last Friday.
“Mark was a great guy and worked really hard for us and for the most part stayed pretty healthy, which was a huge thing for him,’’ Crockett said. “He still had a pretty good fastball and breaking ball, but was a little inconsistent and had trouble throwing as many strikes as I think he would’ve wanted.’’
The 31-year-old righthander went 1-0 with a 3.96 ERA in 19 appearances with Pawtucket, allowing 11 runs on 15 hits and 23 walks, while striking out 38 in 25 innings.
“At the end of the day, roster decisions had to be made and we needed that roster spot,’’ Crockett said. “I have a lot of respect for everything he’s done to get back out on the mound and throw for the better part of a full minor league season.’’
Bryce Brentz went 4 for 5 and belted a pair of homers to help Portland complete a three-game sweep of New Britain with a 7-2 win Wednesday. The victory improved the Sea Dogs to 27-12 since the All-Star break . . . Keith Couch (10-9, 3.47 ERA) became the Carolina League’s fourth 10-game winner when he picked up the victory in Single A Salem’s 5-3 victory at Myrtle Beach Wednesday night. Couch retired 19 of the final 21 batters he faced . . . Pitcher Brian Johnson, the 2012 first-round selection who was hit in the face by a comebacker on his second pitch of Lowell’s game against Hudson Valley Saturday at Fenway Park, continues to show signs of improvement. “Hopefully, he’s doing well and not dealing with much pain and is recovering,’’ Crockett said . . . Jackie Bradley Jr., the organization’s top outfield prospect, remained day-to-day after spraining an ankle rounding second base in the first inning of Portland’s 15-inning triumph at New Britain Tuesday night. “He’s improving and doing pretty good,’’ Crockett said. “We’ll put him through a little bit of a progression before we put him back on the field.’’