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Out of this world with the right stuff

NEW YORK -- Raise your hand if you thought before this game that Mike Mussina would have exited earlier than Tim Wakefield.

If you're from New England, raise your hand if you had faith that Wakefield would come up big at all. Never has a man who has done so much for his team inspired so little faith among the faithful than Wakefield, who pitched six sensational innings to emerge as the winning pitcher in his team's 5-2 series-opening triumph at Yankee Stadium last night.

It's the knuckleball. Baseball managers aren't the only ones who don't trust it. Red Sox Nation had almost universally conceded this game to the Yankees. Every time Wakefield emerges from a game by allowing four runs or less, people all over New England vow to put a little extra money in the collection plate when next they visit a house of worship.

But this was Tim Wakefield's moment. Long ago, another galaxy (oops, wrong story), in another uniform, in another league, his younger self experienced a similar high. The 26-year-old Wakefield tossed a pair of complete-game victories for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1992 National League Championship Series. In the meantime he's had some playoff appearances that weren't so pretty. He's also endured the single most humiliating and demeaning experience of his professional career -- being left off the 1999 ALCS roster against the Yankees after pitching 140 innings and being involved in 17 regular-season decisions.

That snub of four years ago seemed incomprehensible last night, as Wakefield took the mound in his most important start of the year in possession of his very best stuff. The Yankees had no chance. Wakefield allowed two hits, those back-to-back singles by Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui in the second. Wakefield then retired Aaron Boone on a fly to center and Nick Johnson on a grounder to first. And that's all Wakefield gave them until the seventh, when he walked Jason Giambi and Posada before giving way to Alan Embree, who allowed both inherited runners to score before retiring the side.

"I really felt good out there tonight," Wakefield said. "I felt uncomfortable in my start against Oakland [when he gave up five runs in the second inning, not all of which were his fault]. I don't know why, but in order to throw the knuckleball you need a locked wrist, and I didn't have it in that start. It's kind of like your golf swing. Things are going badly, and you're not sure why. But in the last couple of days I've found the key. The wrist was locked when it needed to be."

This spelled trouble with a capital "T" for the Yankees, who hit very few balls with any authority against Wakefield. Asked to "discuss" Wakefield, Yankee skipper Joe Torre joked, "You discuss him; I don't want to discuss him," before giving a seasoned explanation of what his team was facing last evening.

"You're hoping that the thing tumbles," Torre said. "But when it's moving quickly in a downward, well, down, then you know it's a matter of, you know, you hope you catch one. The tough part for a manager is that you can't evaluate your ball club, or say it's not hitting. I caught Phil Niekro -- or I should say I tried to catch Phil Niekro for years, and you could see how frustrated clubs get. Timmy, he was terrific tonight."

(As a further subplot in this Yankees-Red Sox soap opera, Torre's old batterymate, Hall of Famer Niekro, happens to be Wakefield's mentor, the man who helped him refine his technique when Wakefield decided to convert from an overmatched first baseman/outfielder into a pitcher attempting to make a living by throwing something most managers either fear or despise, or a little of both.)

Speaking of batterymates, Doug Mirabelli is the man who catches when Wakefield pitches, and he reported that last evening he was looking at, and, therefore, catching, a different Tim Wakefield than he normally hooks up.

"There was definitely a different look in his eye," Mirabelli said. "He was business-like and very confident. I think he found something today in batting practice. He found the release point on his knuckler and he carried it into the game."

For those of you looking for reasons to believe -- and if you have to ask believe in what, you're probably reading the wrong section of the newspaper to begin with -- consider that knuckleball pitchers are notoriously streaky, and that in his two 2003 postseason starts, Wakefield has had that one bad inning out of 12. He settled down after that five-run second last week (don't forget the misplays by Manny Ramirez and Todd Walker that, if avoided, might have gotten him out of that inning unscathed) to pitch four scoreless innings. That means he's working on a run of 10 scoreless innings at the most important time of the season.

This is a man who put together the greatest prolonged stretch of knuckleball pitching in the history of baseball when he went 14-1 with a 1.65 ERA in his first 17 starts after being brought up from Pawtucket back in 1995. No Niekro, no Hoyt Wilhelm, no nobody throwing this mysterious pitch has ever been so dazzling over that long a period of time.

The point? The point is that perhaps he's been overdue for some partial reenactment of that performance. Hey, stranger things have happened.

I think.

Anyway, he outpitched Mike Mussina, and not many people expected to see that. "The formula for the Boston Red Sox is," said Walker, "our offense is so good that if we get a quality start like we did tonight we'll be tough to beat; there's no doubt about it."

There's also no doubt that Tim Wakefield established a standard last night for the other starters. Seven more like that and, OK, you can fill in your own blank.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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