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Wakefield's return engagement came early

He had anticipated being at the starting line of tonight's fourth game of the American League Championship Series. Instead, Tim Wakefield found himself in the middle of a pitching meltdown last night, called upon to try and lend soothing relief in a sorry excuse for playoff baseball.

Indeed, Wakefield ended up being among the handful of Red Sox pitchers who got slapped around as the Yankees rolled, 19-8, to take a commanding 3-0 lead in the series, and that had to surprise him, for the righthander had not come to Fenway Park looking to come out of the bullpen. But on an evening when there was an endless list of dubious plays and bizarre decisions, Wakefield insisted his bullpen stint was his call.

"When Bronson [Arroyo] got in trouble, I went to Tito [manager Terry Francona] and volunteered it, if you need me down there [in the bullpen]," said the knuckleballer. "I said I'd go down there, knowing we didn't have a long guy, knowing Derek [Lowe] was in the dugout, along with myself."

Francona's reaction?

"He said, `As long as Derek can pitch [Game 4], he said, yeah,' " said Wakefield. "So I got my glove and went down there."

His walk to the bullpen was surprising enough. The fact that he warmed up several times was stunning, for everyone in attendance had not planned on seeing him until the start of Game 4. But even with the admission that Wakefield volunteered to come in in relief, which seemingly lifted the onus off Francona, it struck many as strange as to how the veteran entered the game.

After all, in the 10 ALCS games these clubs have played in 2003 and '04, Boston has won just three of them -- two of them games started by Wakefield. He stood to be the MVP had Boston held on and won Game 7 of last year's series, thanks in part to his superb winning starts in two of the previous six games, only history will treat Wakefield differently. That's because he came into that seventh game for desperate relief and yielded Aaron Boone's winning homer in the 11th, and he never got a chance to make amends this time around. Wakefield has pitched just twice in this series, both in relief and both ineffectively. The one-inning effort in Game 1 is but a distant memory, but last night's Game 3? Oh, how Wakefield long will remember the pain inflicted upon him and his colleagues.

Having watched Arroyo, his starter, get touched for six runs in two-plus innings, Francona turned to Ramiro Mendoza, who yielded an RBI single to the first batter he faced in the third, Bernie Williams. Mendoza got out of further trouble in that inning, then hit the leadoff batter in the fourth, No. 9 hitter Miguel Cairo. It was here that Francona made a series of moves that were bewildering. If, as Wakefield suggested, it had been agreed to use the knuckleballer, it would seemingly have made more sense to start the fourth inning with him, for Boston was in a 6-6 tie.

Instead, Francona pulled Mendoza after he hit Cairo and again he put in a call to the bullpen. For Wakefield? No. Francona wanted Curtis Leskanic. The little-used righthander got Derek Jeter to line out, then walked Alex Rodriguez, yielded a smashing home run into the Monster seats by Gary Sheffield, and then a double by Hideki Matsui. With the score starting to resemble a football score -- it was now New York 9, Boston 6 -- Francona called on Wakefield.

"I did what I could," said Wakefield, who got the first batter he faced, Williams, then was ordered to walk Jorge Posada. Strange move, and oh how it backfired when Ruben Sierra laced a triple to make it 11-6. Hardly the type of game Wakefield had envisioned being involved in.

"It wasn't good, but I tried to stop the bleeding as much as I could," he said.

Would he have preferred coming into the game to start the fourth and the game tied, rather than with a three-run deficit and a runner in scoring position?

Wakefield had a blank stare as he relived the misery.

"They called down and told me I had the fifth inning, no matter what," he said. "I got up, just to play a little catch. It was kind of cold and I wanted to get loose and get ready."

The fact that Mendoza, then Leskanic tossed gas onto the fire hastened the call to Wakefield, who ended up pitching 3 1/3 innings. He was roughed up for five hits and five runs and while he didn't officially get the loss (Mendoza did), Wakefield felt as responsible as anyone. He stood and faced a barrage of questions and maintained the composure with which he always has played.

"I don't know why it happened the way it happened," he said. "It was one of those nights where no matter what you threw up there, they found holes and got hits. They were better than we were tonight, that's for sure."

No argument from Francona, who concedes that the decision to use Wakefield was not one he had planned on.

"We got ourselves into a bind," said the manager, "when we were in the third inning already, it was getting ugly. Because Wake did what he did, we were able to stay away from [Mike] Timlin and [Keith] Foulke. They can throw multiple innings tomorrow and give us a chance to win."

It seemed as if Francona was reaching, but he found the strength to praise Wakefield. "Wake really picked us up," he said. "He's a professional, and when we win tomorrow, we'll have Wake to thank for that."

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