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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Wakefield proves he'll go to any lengths to help

Tim Wakefield put it behind him a long, long time ago. It was never healthy to dwell on something so upsetting and so devastating. If you let negative experiences define you, then moving forward is practically impossible.

"Last year," Wakefield emphasized last night, "was last year."

So he blocked out the one bad pitch he made in the 2003 postseason, the home run ball by Aaron Boone in a dramatic Game 7 of the American League Championship Series that allowed the New York Yankees to advance to the World Series, and sent the Red Sox home, shocked and stunned yet again by a game-winning blast.

Wakefield truly did put it behind him. Of course he did. He's been around a long time, 12 long seasons. He has been a 17-game winner and a 15-game loser. He has been a starter, a reliever, an emergency closer in extra innings, when everyone else is too exhausted to pitch.

That's the thing about Wakefield. He's always ready to pitch.

"He wanted to get into [Game 4] on Sunday, too," said Gabe Kapler. "He was plotting some way to get out there. That's what I love about him. He wants the ball with the game on the line."

With the season hanging in the balance last night, Wakefield was handed the ball in the 12th inning. He had thrown 45-50 warmup pitches the night before, in another cliffhanger. How much could he have left? Truthfully, he didn't know.

Nor, he said, did it matter.

"I was just trying to keep us in the game," Wakefield explained, "for as long as possible."

Normally when Wakefield pitches, the catcher is Doug Mirabelli, but with offense at a premium, Jason Varitek stayed in the game. Wakefield struck out Tony Clark on three pitches, then gave up a single to left field that Manny Ramirez misplayed. Suddenly there was a runner in scoring position with one out.

Wakefield needed only two pitches to get the dangerous Derek Jeter to fly to right, and only one pitch to convince the even more menacing Alex Rodriguez to fly out to center.

As he ran off the field to end the 12th, he gave his pitching coach, Dave Wallace, the thumb's-up. He was ready to go for another. All they had to do was ask.

"He's just so awesome," gushed Wallace. "The way he went through that lineup. He stepped up in every way he could. He pitched great tonight, he was there if we needed him [Sunday] night, and he volunteered to give us innings [Saturday night]. He's just a consummate pro."

It hasn't always been easy to be Tim Wakefield. His agreeability and versatility have often worked against him. Consider that he was slated to start Game 4, but when the team ran into trouble and called his name in Game 3, he forfeited his start the next day.

The good soldier marched out for the 13th last night and ran it to a full count with the dangerous Gary Sheffield before striking him out. There was only one problem -- the ball skipped past Varitek's glove, and Sheffield hustled down to first. Wakefield neutralized the danger by coaxing Hideki Matsui into a fielder's choice that wiped out Sheffield at second, then convinced Bernie Williams to fly to right.

Here's where it got really interesting. On his third pitch to Jorge Posada, the ball squirted away from Varitek again, and the runner advanced. That forced the Red Sox to walk Posada intentionally to set up the force with two out.

Ruben Sierra, who had been on base every time he'd been up to that point, fell behind 0-and-2 trying to keep up with Wakefield's dancing offerings, but suddenly there's another passed ball, sending Matsui to third.

The usually poised Varitek looked flustered. The soldier calmed him with some quick eye contact.

"I looked at Tek, and he looked at me, and I said, `OK, let's go,' " Wakefield said. "Just that one look let him know I was all right with it, that we just needed to bear down and take care of business."

His final pitch of the inning, a knuckler, left Sierra helplessly swinging at air. It also left his catcher with the ball snugly nestled in his glove.

How good was his stuff?

"You saw Varitek trying to catch it," said Jeter. "Nobody knows where it's going to go. It's no fun trying to hit it, either."

Though most people tend to remember the home run he gave up to Boone, the truth is that up until that moment, Wakefield had had a magical postseason. In fact, had Game 7 not wandered into extra innings, there would have been a very good chance Wakefield would have been the MVP of that series.

You can't change history, and Wakefield is right, you shouldn't dwell on it. But anyone who saw him that night, slumped in the clubhouse with tears streaming down his face, couldn't help but feel this soldier deserved better.

Last night, Wakefield got what he deserved. He knocked them down in order in the 14th, and got the win in yet another surreal, pulsating game between these teams.

"It was very gratifying to see," said Kapler. "Tim is one of those guys you have to push hard for, and you know why? Because he cares. He cares about this team as much as anyone in here."

Wakefield said that if the team wanted him to trot out for the 15th inning, he would have given them what he had. Wallace said he wouldn't have allowed it.

"He was gassed," Wallace reported. "I mean, really. How much can you ask one guy to do?"

Apparently, as much as you'd like. Before he walked off the podium in the wee hours of the morning, the winner of Game 5, who threw 43 pitches and held those frightening Yankees scoreless for three innings, would not declare himself unavailable for tonight's continuing saga in New York.

"I could be ready to pitch," said the soldier.

Ready to report for duty.

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

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