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Late dip for Wakefield

Knuckleballer was off his game

He had been their most reliable starter of late, their ace down the stretch. Curt Schilling has run hot and cold. Matt Clement has stumbled at times since the All-Star break. But Tim Wakefield had been the virtuoso, stringing together impressive performances over the most important weeks of the season.

Wakefield didn't have it yesterday. That was made clear from the first inning in the regular season's penultimate game against the Yankees, as two singles, a fielder's choice, and Gary Sheffield's two-run blast into the Monster seats for a 3-0 lead launched the Yankees on their way to an 8-4 victory and the American League East title at Fenway Park.

After allowing only seven first-inning runs all season, Wakefield was smacked around in the opening frame, and it looked as if it would be a long afternoon for the knuckleballer.

''I thought more balls were up than he wanted to be up," manager Terry Francona said. ''Tried to sneak a fastball in on Sheff and he didn't get it in as far as he needed to. We talked about coming back on short rest. This wasn't the Wake, the stuff that we had seen, or we will see. It was a very tough situation. He did the best he could."

Three days after his last start, a 3-1 win over Toronto, Wakefield (16-12) saw the end of his run of five straight starts with four or fewer earned runs; the end of his 1.99 ERA over the last month; the end of the Red Sox' chances of claiming the East title.

''I felt fine," said Wakefield. ''I just didn't have any kind of rhythm or any kind of feel today. I put us in too deep of a hole in the first two innings, facing the wrong guy at the wrong time. I'm very disappointed in myself today. I never found it. I just tried to battle my way through five innings."

Maybe it's just that the Yankees, who last saw Wakefield in a brilliant battle with Randy Johnson in a 1-0 New York win at Yankee Stadium Sept. 11, took batting practice against Joe Ausanio, a former New York knuckleballer. Or maybe Wakefield's unpredictable pitch was predictable.

''The way that you get on is you've got to be patient, make sure you wait until the last minute to swing the bat," Bernie Williams said Friday. ''If you commit yourself too early, it works to his advantage because the pitch count is going to be low and most of the time you're not going to connect on the ball.

''You have to be patient, make sure he throws a lot of pitches, he walks a lot of people. All of a sudden you get a blooper here or something soft there, score a lot of runs."

Except the Yankees didn't have to settle for bloopers. They stung Wakefield for three home runs: Sheffield's in the first; Hideki Matsui's solo shot in the third; and Alex Rodriguez's solo shot in the fifth. None of them, let's just say, were wrapped around the Pesky Pole.

In the past, Wakefield has befuddled the Yankees, (Derek Jeter had the highest career batting average (.286) against him), but it hasn't translated into wins this season. He has compiled a 1-4 record with a 4.20 ERA against the Bombers.

Francona blamed the poor outing on short rest, just three days off for a 39-year-old starter, even one who seemingly can throw his knuckleball all day.

''It's challenging -- and I don't care who it is, power pitcher, knuckleball pitcher, you take them out of their routine and it's difficult," Francona said. ''We had no choice and he had no choice and you try to make the best of it. He's been so good. I have confidence that his next outing will be good. I hope it's this year."

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