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ON BASEBALL

Wake soaks in fans' wave of appreciation

We'll never know, of course, how much compassion Red Sox fans would have shown Tim Wakefield if they didn't have Grady Little to kick around.

(And you may never hear a better summation of Little's tenure with the Sox than the WEEI caller who yesterday afternoon referred to the jettisoned Sox skipper as the "Howard Dean of managers -- two good years, five bad minutes.")

But no one is more appreciative than Wakefield that nine years of wearing the Red Sox uniform -- a length of time unmatched by anyone currently residing in the Sox clubhouse -- has not been defined by the knuckleball that Aaron Boone launched into the heartbreak that passes for history in these parts.

Last night, Wakefield was not only facing the New York Yankees for the first time since Boone took him over the left-field wall in the 11th inning of Game 7 last October in the Bronx, he was pitching in Fenway Park for the first time since that tear-stained night. The cheers he heard may not have matched the volume of boos directed at the newest pinstriped villain, Alex Rodriguez, but they were further affirmation that he had been given a reprieve instead of a blindfold and cigarette.

"That really meant a lot," Wakefield said, after last night's 6-2 Sox win over the Bombers, in which he was staked to a 4-0 lead and made it stand up through seven innings in which he allowed just one earned run on four hits. "The reception I got was tremendous.

"I wanted to give the best performance I could for those fans. They've opened their arms and embraced me like a second son."

Wakefield required just eight pitches and three minutes to breeze through the first three hitters in the Yankees' order, with the assist of a sparkling play by shortstop Pokey Reese, who glided to the middle of the diamond to take a hit away from the first batter, Kenny Lofton.

By the time Wakefield returned to the mound, the Sox had four runs on the board against Javier Vazquez, the gifted righthander who received a rough baptism into the Sox-Yankee rivalry, two Yankee errors and two Sox home runs, by Bill Mueller and Manny Ramirez, putting him at an immediate disadvantage.

Wakefield gave up a bases-empty home run to Jorge Posada in the second, but struck out A-Rod on a curveball in the fourth, when he also coaxed another Yankee newcomer, Gary Sheffield, to roll into a rally-killing double play. He gave up a run in the fifth but stranded a runner on second, benefited from a base-running gamble by A-Rod that backfired in the sixth, when he was cut down attempting to steal third by catcher Doug Mirabelli, and was still resilient in the seventh, when he struck out pinch hitter Tony Clark and induced Lofton to tap into a force to strand two more runners.

"We had some opportunities," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "We had some people on base. But again, Wakefield bends a lot but he doesn't break."

Consecutive rainouts during the Orioles series caused Terry Francona to reshuffle his rotation. Wakefield originally was slated to pitch Wednesday against the Orioles, and hadn't pitched since last Thursday in Baltimore. But the Sox manager elected to bump Curt Schilling to this afternoon, and have Wakefield pitch against the Yankees, a team he beat twice in the ALCS, a series in which he could have easily been crowned MVP if the Sox could have held onto a three-run lead.

Francona, who was Oakland's bench coach at the time, was asked his thoughts when Boone took Wakefield deep.

"Boston had just beat us when I was in Oakland," he said, "and I was still kind of bitter about losing to Boston. We were up, 2-0, feeling pretty good about ourselves, and all of a sudden we're packing our suitcases, going home.

"So to be honest with you, I didn't care. Now, I love Wakefield and there's not been one time that I ever felt the need or the urge to address that. He's as professional as you can get. That word gets thrown around a lot, but he's it. You just wind him up and send him out there and see how good he can do."

Wakefield doesn't hide from the Boone moment, but neither is he measured by it.

"It was last year," he said, "but you move on. Baseball is my life, but not the end of my life.

"I take pride in my job. I was disappointed, but it's time to move on and play another year . . . And that was a lot of fun."

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