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Ruffled feathers in wake of move?

By Nick Cafardo
April 26, 2010

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It’s an impossible equation. You just can’t fit six into five.

Barring an injury or other unforeseen problem, Tim Wakefield likely has made his last start for the Red Sox for a while. The club is poised to move Daisuke Matsuzaka into the rotation, leaving Wakefield as the sixth — and odd — man out.

And while Wakefield’s last start was a good one, the Red Sox ended a poor homestand with a 7-6 loss to the Orioles. The veteran knuckleballer allowed two runs on seven hits with five strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings.

Wakefield, winless in his last eight starts, knew going in he would be moved to the bullpen after yesterday’s outing.

While there doesn’t seem to be any defined role for Wakefield out of the pen, it’s obvious the 43-year-old isn’t keen on his new assignment. His dreams after signing a two-year deal last offseason were to win another championship, become Boston’s winningest pitcher, and earn his 200th win. If he spends any length of time in the pen those personal goals are likely in peril.

Wakefield has always been a team guy, willing to do anything, making relief appearances between starts. Those days are over because of age and back surgery, but after six years of being strictly a starter, Wakefield is being asked to head to the bullpen and patiently wait for his next start.

“He’ll slot into the bullpen,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “Certainly not until after the offday [on Thursday]. I thought he had a lot on his mind all week. I could tell. That’s why we talked to him the other day. If we made it hard for him, we weren’t trying to. He’s a good pitcher. We will always view him as that. We’re going to have some things to deal with as we always do on a lot of things, but this will turn out good. I believe that.’’

It doesn’t appear Wakefield is so sure.

Asked if he had any thoughts about going to the pen, he said, “I don’t have any.’’

Asked whether he was concerned about his limited relief outings in recent years, he said, “No.’’

Asked whether yesterday’s outing was difficult considering the circumstances, he said, “No, it was a start, just another start.’’

Obviously the Sox have a pitcher who isn’t happy.

It’s easy to understand Wakefield’s viewpoint just as it’s easy to understand why the club wants to have its five primetime pitchers intact. There had been a lot of chatter about Clay Buchholz going to the bullpen, but why? Buchholz is the present and future and it’s imperative to stop changing his role and let him establish himself as a 30-start guy who eventually could become a staff ace. Obviously Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and Jon Lester aren’t going to the pen. And Matsuzaka? He throws too many pitches and walks too many batters to work out of the bullpen.

Francona said the team had not yet discussed the role with Wakefield in detail.

“No, not yet,’’ said the manager. “I think we feel, for various reasons, he’s the guy who can handle this. We’re not turning him into a reliever. I understand he’s going to go to the bullpen. I don’t think there’s been a time here for a while where we haven’t needed starters. We think we can handle that. I understand emotions are involved and a lot of things are involved. We’re trying to do what we think is best for the ball club. We’ll work our way through this. I don’t think before his start was a time to do that.’’

Selling Wakefield on the idea of his new role turning into a good thing will be tough.

“Yeah, probably. I certainly understand that,’’ Francona said. “I have a lot of respect for what Wake has done and what Wake will continue to do. Again, this is not us turning him into a reliever. This is putting him in the bullpen until he starts again. I think we feel for various reasons that he’s the guy who can handle this.’’

Wakefield’s teammates understand this is hard for him, but they also believe the knuckleballer will return to the rotation at some point.

“I don’t know how Wake will react to this,’’ catcher Jason Varitek said. “I remember we used to use him as our closer and I remember the catcher would come into the game with him. He’s certainly done it before, but what the wear and tear on him would be I don’t know.’’

Mike Lowell, who has been supplanted as the team’s starting third baseman, said, “I definitely feel for him. I know he went through a lot last year and he’s pitched some big games for us over the years. I don’t know if this is etched in stone and I don’t know what his responsibilities will be in the bullpen. We’re not the front office, so it’s hard to answer questions on decisions they’re making.’’

Management always thought Wakefield would be the sixth pitcher in a five-man rotation. They know how hot Wakefield can get but they know it’s been a while since he’s been able to get through a full season. So they were hoping he could give them half or two-thirds of a season and be the guy ready when someone goes down. Did they articulate this to Wakefield? That’s what we don’t know. In past years the Sox have had to bring in older pitchers to make spot starts — guys such as Paul Byrd. They were hoping Wakefield could be that guy.

Wakefield was asked, however, if he was told in spring training he would be a starter and now he’s not. Wakefield would only respond with, “Today was a very good day. I threw a lot of strikes and unfortunately we came out on the short end of the stick.’’

One problem with putting him in the bullpen is will he take up a valuable roster spot if he’s being used as the guy in waiting? Scott Atchison is a candidate to be the one to go.

Wakefield added he was pleased with his outing.

“I thought I threw a lot of strikes,’’ he said. “I was able to minimize damage. They got base runners on early and the middle innings and I was able to make pitches when I needed to. Considering the last two starts I didn’t have very good stuff and I was able to make some adjustments in my mechanics and pitched well. I got us into the seventh inning, which my job as a starter is to get us deep into the game and give us a chance to win and I thought I did that today.’’

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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