THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

From first pitch, knuckleballer was in command

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / August 27, 2009

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Maybe Terry Francona and John Farrell should give all of their starters a 48-day blow. Whaddya think?

“We’ll gladly take seven innings and one earned run every time out the rest of the year,’’ agreed Farrell, the Red Sox’ pitching coach.

The brass would have been happy with five decent innings in Tim Wakefield’s first start since July 8. They would have been very content with the proverbial quality start of six innings and three or fewer earned runs. But to get seven innings, six hits, one earned run, and 73 strikes, with just 21 balls, from a 43-year-old guy who hadn’t faced big league hitters in seven weeks?

Got to bury the needle on the Gush-O-Meter.

“I think it’s appropriate to say he can gush over this one all he wants,’’ Farrell declared. “I don’t know if there are enough words to say what he did tonight.’’

“I don’t know how he did it,’’ added Francona. “That was more than you could possibly expect.’’

Quite obviously, David Ortiz had to be in the headlines for his two homers, the second being his first walkoff of 2009. That blow gave the Red Sox a 3-2 win and made a winner out of Daniel Bard, who was awesomely unhittable in relief, fanning three of the four men he faced, including the menacing Jim Thome with the tying run perched on third base in the eighth.

But the fact is that in a better world the winning pitcher would have been Wakefield, who handed a 2-1 lead to Ramon Ramirez, only to see his replacement give up a pinch-hit homer over the Red Sox bullpen to Scott Podsednik, the first man he saw. That blow cost Wake a chance to record victory No. 12, but it did nothing to erase the memories of how well he had pitched.

Wakefield had prepped for his major league comeback with a pair of rehab starts, most notably an outing in Pawtucket in which he went 5 2/3 innings, surrendering one run (a homer). But no one could come up with any explanation for Wakefield’s phenomenal command last night, which included throwing a sick 17 consecutive strikes (and 27 of his first 30 pitches), and all this with a knuckleball!

“I had better command than I did in Pawtucket, obviously, throwing a lot of strikes with a lot of movement,’’ said Wakefield.

The only run off him came in the first, when Gordon Beckham, the game’s second batter, reached on a swinging bunt down the third base line, and Paul Konerko smashed an 0-and-2 pitch to the triangle for a triple.

Fielding had been the big concern for Wakefield, whose issue had been sciatica-induced pain in his left calf. And this being baseball, the game found him very quickly. First there was the Beckham play, and that was followed by another dribbler off the bat of A.J. Pierzynski, which resulted in an extraordinarily rare 3-4 putout at first base.

“Unbelievable,’’ said Francona. “It was like they’re trying to swing and bunt. [Dustin Pedroia] made a great play to get over there to cover. We had talked about that before the game, but it’s a lot easier to execute it in a game on a bunt, rather than a swinging bunt.’’

For the record, Wakefield was on the scene. “I think I could have got there but, obviously, our infield knows my situation and Pedey made a phenomenal play to get an out there,’’ Wakefield said.

He sailed through the second and third, got an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play on Thome to get out of the fourth, and then had a bit of an adventure in the fifth. Carlos Quentin reached base on yet another swinging bunt (the ball hit the third base bag) and then got to third with one out on a stolen base/E-2. But Wakefield got Alex Rios on a 5-3 ground out and Alexei Ramirez on a grounder to first.

Wake left Pierzynski standing on second in the sixth by retiring Konerko on a pop to first and concluded his night’s work by getting Ramirez on a pop to short with men on first and second in the seventh.

It was the fourth time this year Wakefield had gone seven or more innings while allowing one run or none, but it was the first time he had done so after fighting through sciatica and missing seven weeks’ worth of starts. And given the current state of Red Sox starting pitching beyond Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, there is no way to exaggerate what a lift to the team this performance represents.

Don’t forget to congratulate everyone involved with this Wakefield rehab. This needed to be more than just a ceremonial return to action. The Red Sox need to win every game they possibly can.

“I think that’s one of the reasons I went back and had my second rehab start, because I wanted to get my pitch count up, and I think the organization did, too,’’ Wakefield pointed out. “I only went 3 2/3 my first one, and the situation we have going on, we’re in the middle of a pennant race. I just can’t go out there and go four innings and, ‘Good job.’ I want to contribute as much as I can. My mind-set was to go as deep into the game as I could.’’

Many a time over the years Wakefield has concluded a postgame media session by explaining that “I did my job,’’ which we would shorten to “IDMJ.’’ Well, this was an “IDMJ’’ that was about a 9 on a scale of 10. Context is everything in professional sports, and the context here, as Wakefield explained, is one of very important games. To have him come back after seven weeks and submit one of his four best starts of the year was far beyond anyone’s reasonable expectations.

Tim Wakefield: Dan Duquette’s long-ago gift to the Red Sox that keeps on giving.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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