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Bob Ryan

For the knuckleballer, latest twist is cruelest

The last time Red Sox ace Josh Beckett pitched against Jeff Francis of the Rockies, Francis beat him badly. But that was before Beckett's dominating post-season performance, the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan says. http://link.brightcove.com/services/link/bcpid1243698388http://www.brightcove.com/channel.jsp?channel=245991542

Does somebody out there still think these guys don't care? I was afraid Tim Wakefield was going to need a box of Kleenex.

Tim Wakefield cares, all right. He always has. Just because he doesn't have Jonathan Papelbon's 97-mile-per-hour heater, Josh Beckett's 12-to-6 curveball or Curt Schilling's devastating splitter doesn't mean he isn't just as fierce a competitor as any other pitcher, or player, on the Red Sox.

From Kevin Kennedy to Terry Francona, five Red Sox managers have known just whom they could count on in times of emergency in the pitching department. Tim Wakefield has been a security blanket for skippers around here for 13 years, and the fact that he cannot pitch in the 2007 World Series is a matter of no small consequence.

And he can't.

"I really wish I was up here talking about my starting Game 2," Wakefield said yesterday, his voice cracking. "But, unfortunately, that's not the case today. After long talks with [Terry Francona] and [pitching coach] John Farrell and Theo [Epstein], my health, advice from the doctors . . . it's not going to happen, unfortunately."

Tim Wakefield will not be on the World Series roster, and the way he was sounding, it's also possible he has thrown his last pitch in the major leagues.

First we were told it was his back. Then we were told, no, it's actually more like his shoulder.

Are we on a "need to know" basis? Somewhere up there where the back meets the shoulder, something isn't right. That's good enough for me.

"It's just a lot of inflammation in my shoulder and posterior shoulder and my back or the back of my shoulder," he said, confirming the ambiguous nature of all this. "There's no structural damage based on an MRI that I had in September.

"The problem [is] that the doctors are uneasy about my recovery time. If I keep throwing and throwing and throwing with swelling, it may cause impingement; it may tear something."

Tim Wakefield won 17 games this season, matching his career high, and there were times when he was as good as he's been since those unfathomable two months in 1995, when he started off his Red Sox career by winning 14 of 15 decisions in what was, without question, the greatest stretch of concentrated knuckleball pitching in the history of this game. No one, not Hoyt Wilhelm, not Phil Niekro, not anyone, was ever as unhittable while throwing a knuckleball as Wakefield was from late May to mid August of 1995.

Over the years, managers, pitching coaches, teammates, fans, and media have learned to live with Tim Wakefield and his professional foibles. The knuckleball is the knuckleball is the knuckleball. Sometimes it truly is unhittable. Other times it's no better than if Wakefield had placed it on a tee and invited batters to swing away. Wakefield has mastered the mysterious mechanics as much as anyone can, but there were countless times when he would sum up what had just happened, good or bad, by saying, "When I let it go, I have no idea what's going to happen."

If, indeed, Tim Wakefield's major league career is over, he retires as the third-winningest pitcher in Red Sox history, his total of 154 leaving him 48 behind Cy Young and Roger Clemens. Then throw in the 22 career saves (15 in 1999). And then factor in the many times when he, as they like to say, "saved the bullpen" by staying out there to take one for the team.

As Exhibit A, you need look no further than Game 3 of the 2004 American League Championship Series against the Yankees. That was the infamous 19-8 game. Wake was Terry Francona's fourth pitcher, entering the game in the fourth inning. Look, it wasn't a good night for any Boston pitcher. Wake was touched for five earned runs. But he was able to get Francona into the seventh, and the skipper was very grateful.

Two games later, Wakefield was called on again, this time in a very different situation. We are talking about Game 5, the 5-hour-49-minute epic decided in the 14th inning when David Ortiz hit the 10th pitch of a tortuous at-bat against Esteban Loaiza into center field at 1:22 in the morning to make the Red Sox 5-4 winners and send the series back to New York.

Wakefield worked three scoreless, and adventurous innings, taking over for Alan Embree in the 12th and surviving a harrowing 13th when Jason Varitek committed three passed balls (one on a Gary Sheffield third strike) before Wake fanned Ruben Sierra with men on second and third to end the inning. Sure, everyone remembers Tim Wakefield winning those two starts against the Yankees in '03. Everyone remembers Aaron Boone, too. But you can wow 'em at your next cocktail party by pointing out that Tim Wakefield was the winning pitcher in that memorable Game 5.

This is why not having Tim Wakefield could matter in this series. As every physicist west of the Kansas border has pointed out, yes, he would have been in trouble trying to throw the knuckleball in the thin air of Denver. And had he started Game 2, he might not have gotten out of the third inning, either. But it's baseball, and you never know when someone has to come in and save a bullpen or perhaps come in to pitch the 12th, 14th, or 18th in a game gone wild. Tim Wakefield doesn't blink.

But he does sniffle, and he was a very sad man as he sat before the national media.

"As a competitor, I want to be out there, competing," he said. "This is the ultimate stage. This is what I've worked hard for from spring training through the course of the season, and now I can't be available. I mean it sucks, to put it bluntly."

What will Tito do now? Wake's 1-0 at 1:22 in the morning. No other Red Sox pitcher can make that statement.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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