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BOB RYAN

This one was put to bed early

After two scoreless innings, Tim Wakefield had thrown just 14 pitches, and the Toronto Blue Jays were in serious trouble.

"They come in thinking they've got to be patient," said Red Sox catcher Doug Mirabelli. "They see that thing coming in there at 68 miles an hour and he's throwing strikes with it."

That means they'd better start hacking, and that meant something else.

"I saw a lot of bad swings up there," said Pokey Reese, who observed all of Wakefield's handiwork from a dugout vantage point.

It's not just Toronto. A lot of people in the American League have had a lot of bad swings against Wakefield this year. This may be the best he's thrown since 1995, when, for two months, he put on the best exhibition of knuckleball pitching ever seen on this, or any other, planet. No one currently drawing a breath ever again will see anything like the Tim Wakefield of May, June, and July in 1995. That is the lock of all locks. A knuckleballer going 14-1 again? Nah.

So forget that. But what we are now seeing is pretty good. Wakefield has gone to the mound nine times this season and seven of them have been good to excellent outings, the most recent one yesterday's strong seven innings (seven hits, two earned runs) during a 7-2 conquest of the Blue Jays at Fenway Park.

It was the sixth time in eight starts (he also had a two-inning relief stint) he had allowed two or fewer runs, earned or otherwise. "Except for '95, this is the best start I've had," Wakefield said.

Even one of the outings he lost was a plus. He did not have his best stuff, but he was able to finesse his way through six innings, saving the bullpen in an eventual 6-4 loss to Cleveland that earned him nearly as much appreciation from the brass as if he had won the game. Fans don't want to hear it, but it's performances like that that have endeared him to a succession of Red Sox managers. Wakefield has a value to the pitching staff that transcends his wins and losses.

The man is the preeminent knuckleball pitcher in the contemporary game. We do not live in a knuckleballing era. Wakefield has become the equivalent of the single wing or the two-hand set shot. It's legal, and it works, but it's not pretty and it doesn't appeal to the inherent Macho Man in the modern athlete, and so he's practically the only one still doing it.

"Thank God I had [Tom] Candiotti before I came here," said Red Sox pitching coach Dave Wallace. Candiotti was a reformed fastball/curveball pitcher who coverted himself into a knuckleballer after his major league career was under way. Wallace encountered Candiotti when both were with the Dodgers, but coaching him wasn't quite the same as coaching Wakefield because Candiotti mixed in his original pitches with his knuckler more than Wakefield. Oh, Wakefield does spot a modest not-so-slow ball, as well as an ever-improving breaking ball, but he is at least a 90-percent knuckleballer, so it's been an education for Wallace.

"He knows how to manage a game," marveled Wallace. "I learned from talking to Charlie Hough that at some point in the game you're gonna get a feel for the pitch. The secret is to get to that point. I don't care if it's 5-4, 6-4, 3-2, you look up and it's the seventh inning and he's still out there. He has managed the game. It's absolutely amazing."

His only bad inning yesterday was the fourth, when the Blue Jays bunched a hit batsman, a walk, a wild pitch, and a pair of hits for two runs. But this came after a lengthy four-run Red Sox third. "The temperature changed about five or 10 degrees, and I got really stiff," Wakefield said. "I didn't stay as loose as I wanted to be."

"He's 37," joked Mirabelli. "It takes his body longer to get cranked up." But let the record show that things could have been a lot worse. With two men in, runners on first and second and no one out, he threw a 6-4-3 double play ball to Josh Phelps and retired Eric Hinske on a fly to center.

This is Mirabelli's third year as the regular Wakefield catcher, which means he is Wakefield's semi-official mouthpiece. It's kind of funny. Their lockers are next to each other. First you get Wakefield on Wakefield. Then you get Mirabelli on Wakefield, with Wakefield able to hear what's being said. But there's never a rebuttal.

Mirabelli contends that this is the best Wakefield he has seen. "The difference," he said, "is that he usually comes to spring training trying to get a feel for the knuckler, whereas this time he was ahead of schedule. This year he had the knuckleball when he arrived. I thought he was two or three weeks ahead and now he's in midseason form. From Opening Day 'til now he hasn't missed a beat."

Yesterday's outing was a little odd by Wakefield standards. He came out after just 89 pitches. "I did tell Terry [Francona] I was tired," he said. "I'm just a little sleep-deprived right now. I hope you guys understand that."

In case you missed the news, he became a father for the first time May 15 when wife Stacy presented him with Trevor Steven Wakefield. He claims to be doing his share of the middle-of-the-night stuff, offering his face as evidence. "You see my eyes?" he inquired. "Yeah, I have been trying to help out my wife as much as I can."

"It's pretty funny," said Mirabelli. "Now he understands. He's 37 and a first-time father. Now he gets it about getting up at 3 a.m. Now it's his time."

His record as a dad is 2-0, with a 1.93 ERA. Who needs sleep?

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

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