ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Leave it to the youngest kid in the major leagues to distill the problem to its essence. At 19, B.J. Upton last night was minutes away from making his highly anticipated debut in the bigs -- he signed for $4.6 million with the Devil Rays as the second overall pick in the 2002 draft -- when his voice boomed through the public address system in the concourse at Tropicana Field during a broadcast of a pregame radio interview.
Upton was poised to make his premiere as the DH against Tim Wakefield, the Red Sox knuckleballer who graduated from high school three months before Upton was born and who turned 38 yesterday.
"I'd almost rather face Pedro Martinez, to tell you the truth," Upton said.
So would most of his teammates, as the Devil Rays entered the game with a lineup batting a career .218 against Wakefield. And, sure enough, Wakefield flummoxed them again as he helped the Sox snap a two-game losing streak and try yet again to start a sprint toward the postseason with a sorely needed 6-3 victory over the Rays before 21,835 at the Trop.
"It was a huge win for us coming off the two losses in Minnesota," said Wakefield, who improved to 5-0 in his career at Tampa Bay and 10-1 overall against the Rays. He also pitched the 2,000th inning of his career, becoming the 19th active pitcher to reach the milestone.
How better to mark the knuckleballer's birthday, not to mention Don Zimmer Bobblehead Day at the Trop?
The third-place Rays are no patsies, having won five of their last six games before the Sox arrived. But Wakefield rationed them only three runs on four hits and as many walks over seven innings before Alan Embree and Keith Foulke combined to close it out.
"If those guys get on base, they cause havoc," Sox manager Terry Francona said, "and [Wakefield] did a good job of keeping them off base."
Burdened with still another casualty to a key player (second baseman Mark Bellhorn landed on the 15-day disabled list), the revamped and Nomar-less Sox got all the production they needed from a couple of spare parts, David McCarty and Kevin Youkilis. McCarty, starting for a second straight day over newly acquired first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz against a lefthander, swatted a three-run homer off Mark Hendrickson in the second inning. And Youkilis, starting at third base while Bill Mueller moved to second, contributed a two-run double in the fifth.
The Sox also played without David Ortiz, who sat out the second game of his five-game suspension.
"We'd like to have David," Francona said, "but we have some ways to beat people."
Garciaparra's replacement at shortstop, Orlando Cabrera, went hitless in five at-bats filling the third spot in the order. But he did all needed to do by fielding his position cleanly, and Wakefield handled things so well that Francona never needed to tap Mientkiewicz or Dave Roberts.
Not that he had any concern about how Cabrera, Mientkiewicz, and Roberts would mesh with the team. The manager, sounding a bit as if he were making a pitch for world peace, said, "When guys get in a [new] uniform for one day, they're part of the team. Baseball has a great way of doing that. Maybe the rest of the world should take notice. Barriers get knocked down and guys are welcome."
As for Wakefield, he may be aging but he was good enough to improve to 7-6 with a 4.15 ERA as he yielded only a two-run homer to Tino Martinez and an RBI ground out to Rhode Island's Rocco Baldelli. Even so, Martinez's homer in the first jarred him a bit.
"It was motivating for me, knowing it was very important for me to get my offense back in the dugout again," Wakefield said. "I made a bad pitch to Tino worrying about the runner at first base, but the offense did a great job of getting me back in the ballgame."
McCarty took care of it in the second inning as he laced a misplaced changeup from Hendrickson over the wall in left-center. McCarty is 3 for 4 with two homers and seven RBIs in his career against Hendrickson.
"I think it helped to kind of get us going a little bit," McCarty said. "It's nice to get a win for Wake on his birthday, too."
Wakefield did what a 38-year-old veteran is expected to do with a lead: He protected it. After Martinez's homer, the knuckleballer retired 10 straight before Jose Cruz mustered a harmless two-out single in the fourth.
Then the Sox gave Wakefield breathing room as Youkilis, renowned for his patience, pounced on Hendrickson's first pitch to him in the fifth and whistled a two-run double down the left-field line. Youkilis scored the final Sox run when third baseman Aubrey Huff misplayed a grounder by Manny Ramirez.
Upton? He fared better than he may have hoped, drawing a walk and singling in three plate appearances against Wakefield.
"The first at-bat, the first swing, the first pitch, I was kind of nervous," he said. "But other than that, it felt like another day."