|KEVIN CASH Handles knuckler|
The last time the Red Sox tried someone other than Doug Mirabelli behind the plate with knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, general manager Theo Epstein was panicked into what he now rues as his worst trade. Epstein gave up on catcher Josh Bard - who had committed 10 passed balls in five starts with Wakefield, including four in one game - and packaged him with reliever Cla Meredith to the Padres to get back Mirabelli.
That was May 1, 2006, when Mirabelli received a police escort from Logan Airport and a hero's welcome at Fenway Park, perhaps the only place on the planet where a backup catcher could fly out of Lindbergh Airfield in San Diego and be received like Lucky Lindy himself 3,000 miles away.
Mirabelli is gone again, disappearing on a March morning in Fort Myers, Fla., after being told he'd been released, and this time the prodigal catcher is not likely to return. Mirabelli, 37, is still waiting to hear from a team, according to his longtime catching partner, Jason Varitek, who has stayed in touch.
The burden of catching Wakefield, who makes his first start of 2008 tonight against the Toronto Blue Jays in Rogers Centre, now falls on Kevin Cash, who is seven years younger than Mirabelli. Cash showed last season after Mirabelli strained a calf muscle that he could handle the knuckleball, but has yet to prove he can hit big league pitching, as his .167 career average in limited time with the Blue Jays, Devil Rays, and Sox would attest.
The last two seasons, Cash hasn't hit much in the minors, either - .183 for Triple A Durham, Tampa Bay's affiliate, in '06, and .176 in 59 games with Triple A Pawtucket last season.
But the Sox demonstrated with Mirabelli - who hit just .206 with 17 home runs and 59 RBIs in 433 at-bats the last three seasons - that offense is secondary with Wakefield on the mound.
"He's good," manager Terry Francona said after Cash caught Wakefield in Saturday's exhibition in Los Angeles's Memorial Coliseum and hit a three-run home run, which might not have had the distance in a park of normal dimensions. "He's a good catcher. I think that's stating the obvious."
In his first game with Wakefield after Mirabelli's release, a minor league game in Fort Myers, Cash caught five perfect innings.
"It's not a relief," Francona said when asked about how well the two have clicked. "I'm glad, but we watched him last year. Cash, under some pretty difficult circumstances, did an outstanding job. And there was no reason to believe that he would go backwards. Cash is too conscientious, to go along with his catching tools, for that to happen."
While it sometimes seems, with the exception of Bard's failed trial, as if Wakefield never had another catcher besides Mirabelli, a dozen masked men have set up behind the plate since Wakefield came to the Sox, beginning with Mike Macfarlane. He was Wakefield's first regular catcher in '95, when the knuckleballer started the season 14-1, finished 16-8, and had a 2.95 ERA, second in the American League.
Macfarlane had 26 passed balls that season, most by a catcher since Texas's Geno Petralli had 35 in 1987 while attempting to corral another knuckleballer, Charlie Hough.
Mike Stanley was Wakefield's primary catcher in 1996, and while he committed fewer passed balls (18) that season, he failed to throw out anyone in 27 stolen base attempts with Wakefield on the hill.
Bill Haselman and Scott Hatteberg split the catching duties in 1997 and committed 17 passed balls apiece, but did a terrific job of controlling the running game, throwing out 17 of 41 runners attempting to steal, a success rate of 41.4 percent.
By 2000, when Hatteberg was sharing the job with Varitek, base stealers were again running at will against Wakefield, succeeding on 31 of 33 attempts.
Creighton Gubanich, Marcus Jensen, Joe Oliver, and Lenny Webster all made cameo appearances behind the plate when Wakefield pitched, until Mirabelli arrived in 2002 and took the load off Varitek for six seasons. The most passed balls Mirabelli had in any season with the Sox were 15 in 2004. Last season, he committed just six, half the number of the year before.
He also did a relatively good job of keeping the running game in check, though last season 32 runners stole successfully against Wakefield/Mirabelli, the most in their six years together. But Wakefield also won 17 games last season, his most since 1998, and might have had 20 if his season didn't blow up at the end because of a tear in the labrum of his pitching shoulder. Wakefield had an 8.76 ERA in 24 2/3 innings over his last five starts, and was left off the World Series roster when his shoulder didn't respond.
But he's rebounded nicely this spring - a 2-0 record and 1.29 ERA in four spring training starts, including his Coliseum start in which he allowed an unearned run on five hits in five-plus innings.
And Rogers Centre may be an ideal place to start, especially if the roof is closed. Since the beginning of 2004, Wakefield is 4-2 with a 3.58 ERA in six starts north of the border. He had two terrific starts against the Jays last season, allowing four hits and a run in seven innings of a 4-1 win April 18, then three hits and no runs in seven innings of an 8-0 win May 10.
Wakefield makes no secret of the fact he misses Mirabelli. They were close, on and off the field.
"When Doug was released, I was saddened by the whole situation, but by no means did I have any lack of confidence that Kevin couldn't do the job," he said. "He proved it last year and he's been doing great since he took over the job, so I have no worries about him."
Gordon Edes can be reached at email@example.com.