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Kottaras's effort is eye-catching

He's nearly flawless in Wakefield's start

Against the Yankees' prospective Opening Day lineup, Tim Wakefield had his best spring outing: 5 2/3 innings, 4 hits, 1 run. Against the Yankees' prospective Opening Day lineup, Tim Wakefield had his best spring outing: 5 2/3 innings, 4 hits, 1 run. (kathy willens/Associated Press)
By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / March 25, 2009
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TAMPA - Tim Wakefield kept Yankees off the bases for five innings last night, which kept the pressure off George Kottaras.

Kottaras had proven capable of snatching Wakefield's knuckleballs, but only with the knowledge that a mistake meant minimal damage.

That changed quickly. The Red Sox led by a run in the sixth when Brett Gardner lashed a sinking line drive to center. Jacoby Ellsbury dived for it, but the ball skittered away and Gardner raced to third. Suddenly, every pitch that floated toward Kottaras presented him with an opportunity to squander the game.

While Wakefield dazzled a genuine New York lineup in an eventual 7-1 loss, Kottaras gave him reason to throw his most wicked knuckleballs without wavering. The battery found increased cohesion and Wakefield pitched his best outing of the spring. In his second start catching Wakefield, Kottaras met every new challenge without one passed ball.

No at-bat proved that more than Johnny Damon's in the sixth, with Gardner on third.

Twice a day, Kottaras fields a bucket of balls shot through a pitching machine meant to mimic a knuckleball. Those sessions take place with only bullpen coach Gary Tuck and a few fellow catchers watching. This was different. The go-ahead run stood 90 feet away, under the lights, and in front of 11,113 fans, a record for Steinbrenner Field.

"Just trying not to have the anxiety of letting it go by you," Kottaras said. "Just taking as it is, like with nobody on, basically. Still trying to catch them all and keep them in front.

"You can only work on it so much. Once you're in the game, it's a different feel, because you don't know what the ball is going to do."

And Wakefield had saved some of his most devilish knuckleballs. He threw one that started at Damon's stomach and dived to his feet as Damon swung over it. Kottaras stabbed at it, his mitt rubbing the dirt, and caught it. The next knuckler followed a similar trajectory. Again Damon swung through it, and Kottaras caught the ball.

Damon fouled a pitch off and then dribbled an infield single; Gardner scored anyway, but Kottaras's performance imbued Wakefield with confidence, which Kottaras had been doing all night.

"I'm as comfortable with him as I am with [Kevin] Cash last year," Wakefield said.

Wakefield passed a test of his own. The Yankees started their projected Opening Day lineup, and his knuckleball mystified them as if they were a procession of minor leaguers coming to the plate. The Damon squibber scored the only run off Wakefield, who went 5 2/3 innings, his longest stint of the spring, and allowed four hits.

Wakefield dismisses the scoreboard during spring training, focusing on the feel of pitches and his stamina. A night game against the Yankees injected zero extra adrenaline, he said. But Wakefield still felt buoyed by the outing.

"You try not to look at results, but you've got to pat yourself on the back a little bit when you do as well as I did tonight facing a lineup like that," Wakefield said. "You take all the positives out of it."

Wakefield threw only two fastballs all night and, at Kottaras's request, changed speeds effectively. Wakefield is at his best - and most difficult to catch - when he can toss glacially slow knucklers to go with his merely soft ones.

"He showed a little more assertiveness calling some slow ones," Wakefield said. "I got some strikeouts on some slow ones, mixing in different speeds on his call, not mine."

"It's good, because it gets guys out," Kottaras said. "It was active in the zone, and that's what he's trying to do."

Kottaras muffed only two balls, and both proved irrelevant. With no one on base, Damon swung through a knuckler down the middle of the plate. Kottaras squeezed his glove before the ball arrived, and it deflected off the mitt. Later an inside knuckleball to Cody Ransom dribbled away when Kottaras couldn't catch it.

Only one runner, Damon, attempted to steal, and did so easily. Kottaras pulled the ball out of his glove with a slight hitch, but got it out in time to make a throw. Damon beat the tag with time to spare.

From the start, though, Kottaras impressed. In the first inning, the Sox got their first look at a pinstriped Mark Teixeira. On a 1-and-2 count, Wakefield threw one of his slower knuckleballs.

The pitch bobbed down and away, and Kottaras reached across his body as Teixeira swung through it. Kottaras stabbed at it and snared the ball, then held his glove aloft to show the umpire he caught it. He scampered back to the bench and received a fist-bump from Terry Francona.

"He's not been thrown into just a normal backup situation," said the manager. "Again, nobody has made our team yet. But he's catching Wake right now, so he's got that added responsibility. He's a good receiver. He's been throwing real well. He's had a good camp."

Francona is still getting acquainted with Kottaras, who was acquired from the Padres for David Wells in 2006 and was a late-season call-up last year, receiving five at-bats in three games. "We're still learning," Francona said.

He knows Kottaras possesses some power in his bat; in 395 at-bats with Pawtucket last season, Kottaras hit 22 home runs. He knows the sport is not overflowing with powerful catchers - only three hit more than 20 home runs in the majors last season.

"If you throw the ball over the plate, he can hit a home run," Francona said. "Catching is hard to find. So you get a lefthanded-hitting guy who can get the ball out of the ballpark that can receive the ball, you're hoping you found somebody who can play a little bit."

For now, they'll settle for somebody who can catch Wakefield. And, for a night, they had that catcher.

Adam Kilgore can be reached at akilgore@globe.com

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