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JACKIE MACMULLAN

He puts own spin on series

Tim Wakefield is a student of the knuckleball. He has pored over the details of the great ones before him, yet even he was surprised when given a pop quiz regarding the pitch that accounts for his viability. The question before last night's Game 4: What three knuckleball starting pitchers have won postseason games?

Coming up with those three was easy: Wakefield (with the Pirates, against Atlanta, in 1992), Wakefield (with the Pirates again, against Atlanta in 1992), and Wakefield (with the Red Sox, in Game 1 against the Yankees last Wednesday).

"But I'm not sure if I'm the only one," Wakefield said last night, after adding postseason victory No. 4 to his resume. "There could be someone else. If not, then that's pretty amazing."

Amazing indeed. Behind Wakefield's five-hit, one-run performance, the Red Sox evened their American League Championship Series with New York, 2-2. His career LCS record is now 4-0 with a 2.61 ERA. Wakefield has notched both W's for Boston in this series, and Yankee batters are hitting just .150 against him. "I wouldn't say he has a psychological edge, because psychologically, he doesn't know where it's going to go," said New York shortstop Derek Jeter. "He doesn't know if it's up, down, right, or left."

For all you baseball historians out there, this is an open invitation to unearth another knuckleballer who has started and won a playoff game (no relievers, please). The closest the crack Red Sox media relations staff could come up with on very short notice was Joe Niekro, a pitcher who was not a pure knuckleballer like his brother, Phil, but who did rely on the pitch intermittently. Joe Niekro pitched eight scoreless innings for Houston in the 1981 National League Division Series but logged a no-decision. The Astros went on to win, 1-0, in 11 innings, with Joe Sambito, who would later play for the Red Sox, notching the victory.

The earnest Red Sox staff checked the lives and times of Hoyt Wilhelm, Charlie Hough, Wilbur Wood, Tom Candiotti, and both Niekros, yet none of them have yielded a playoff victory.

The fact that few, and perhaps none, have tried where Wakefield has gone is a testament to the elder statesman of the Red Sox, who is, above all else, a survivor. True to Wakefield's history, last night's game proved to be an adventure, even with only one Yankee run coming across during his watch. There was the jam in the first inning, when he walked leadoff hitter Alfonso Soriano, then gave up a single to Jeter. Slugger Jason Giambi followed with a bullet down the first-base line, but it was right at Kevin Millar, who gloved the ball, then completed the double play by nailing Jeter, who understandably was off the base.

"That was huge," said catcher Doug Mirabelli. "That whole inning became a momentum builder for us."

"Sometimes," said Wakefield, "it's better to have luck on your side than talent."

Who would have ever thought it was Wakefield who would crawl inside the heads of the Yankees, and flummox them with his best stuff? Even the biggest Wakefield fan couldn't have anticipated his dominance of a very dangerous lineup. Admit it. You figured if the Sox were tied, 2-2, that Pedro Martinez or Derek Lowe would have accounted for at least one of those victories.

Asked for his thoughts on Wakefield's performance, Yankees manager Joe Torre cracked, "I really don't feel like giving you my thoughts on Wakefield.

"No, he was terrific," said Torre. "Again, we had him on the ropes a couple of times, but we couldn't get the hit that would put him on the ropes. So you really have to give him [credit]. I have a lot of respect for him.

"He's probably great for a manager because you can start him, you can relieve him. He's pretty durable, and he's a class act. I thought we battled him tougher this time than the last time, but we still came up empty."

The beauty of a knuckleballer is that since he's not throwing heat all night, he's able to recover more quickly. Torre is right. Wakefield remains valuable because he could, in theory, pitch today if absolutely needed, although that is highly unlikely. A more plausible scenario would be Wakefield seeing heavy duty in Games 6 or 7 (should the series be extended that far). That thought becomes more enticing for Red Sox fans each day. Manager Grady Little simply said, "I'm not going to make any promises."

"Right now I feel great," said Wakefield, "but I might be running on adrenaline. I'll see how I feel [today]. I could be available [today]."

Wakefield has repeatedly said how he throws in the bullpen in warmups is irrelevant. He's felt great striding to the mound, and been shelled. He's been convinced he has nothing as he faced the first batter, then pitched beautifully.

"He's right," said Mirabelli. "It's like that. We don't talk on the way in. At that point, he's going into the game either way, whether his stuff is good, or bad. And, even if it's bad, you're going to tell him it's good."

While Torre felt Wakefield wasn't quite as sharp as his Game 1 performance, the pitcher said his knuckler was even deeper (able to drop from top to bottom) this time around. Even so, he resisted the suggestion that he had gotten in the heads of this New York lineup.

He is enough of a historian to be pleased with the notion that his first postseason victory, and his latest, are more than 10 years apart.

"This was probably the most exciting game of my whole career," he said. "When I won in Pittsburgh, I was too young to know what was going on. Now, 10, 11 years later, I realize how hard it is to get to this stage of the playoffs, and I appreciate it a lot more."

So do the Red Sox.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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