TORONTO -- He may be something less than an international sensation -- heck, rare is the night when he takes his wife, Stacy, and their two kids out to eat and draws more than a few appreciative nods and greetings from the folks back home. Paparazzi? For Tim Wakefield, that's something you put on top of a pizza.
But Wakefield has made a pretty good living throwing his nakkuru-bouru, which is what his celebrity teammate, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and his fellow Japanese call the knuckleball. And the early returns this spring suggest the nakkuru-bouru remains the king of the trick pitches on the Red Sox staff, even if it's not yet in Matsuzaka's repertoire.
Wakefield, who will turn 41 in August, went seven innings last night, allowing just a run on four hits, in a 4-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays that continues a run of extraordinary pitching by the Sox.
"The man just keeps going," said fellow 40-something Mike Timlin of Wakefield, who was supported by three solo home runs off Tomo Ohka. "Awesome. When I grow up, I'm going to be just like him."
Last night's game was the eighth straight in which the Sox have limited opponents to three or fewer runs, something the staff hadn't done since 1988, when Sox pitchers went 11 games at that level of stinginess.
"Am I impressed? Yeah," said reliever Brendan Donnelly, who pitched a clean eighth before turning the game over to Jonathan Papelbon, who gave up the first hit he's allowed this season, a single to Aaron Hill, then walked pinch hitter Gregg Zaun to put the tying runs on base, before striking out pinch hitters Jason Smith and Adam Lind for his third save.
"I'm impressed, but we knew we had a good pitching staff coming into the thing, you know what I mean?" Donnelly said. "We're deep in pitching. We have a lot of starting pitching. A lot of these guys, if you asked them if they were surprised, they'd say it was expected. Surprised is not a good word, I think."
When reminded that he was asked if he was impressed, not surprised, Donnelly broke into a grin. "You know what, you did ask me that," he said. "The answer to that is I'm impressed, obviously, but it was expected, given the quality of the guys we got."
And one of those guys clearly is Wakefield, enjoying a renaissance after a season in which he missed two months with a weird rib injury. "When I was with the Angels," Donnelly said, "no one was running to the bat rack when Wakefield was pitching. It's something you don't ever see; you can't work on it, it's just a matter of hoping for the best."
Wakefield has allowed three runs in his three starts spanning 20 innings, his earned run average dipping to 1.35. Last night, he pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the fourth, striking out Jason Phillips after issuing three straight two-out walks. By the time the Blue Jays broke through in the seventh on Royce Clayton's two-out double and John McDonald's single, the Sox had four runs, the first three coming on home runs -- by Mike Lowell (No. 1), Doug Mirabelli (No. 2), and David Ortiz (No. 5).
Blue Jays star Vernon Wells had raved about the Sox' pitching the night before, citing Matsuzaka, Curt Schilling, and Josh Beckett. He grimaced when someone mentioned Wakefield. "I don't even want to talk about Wakefield," he said. "I'm not a fan."
That was intended as a compliment, of course. But it also underscored a reason Wakefield remains such an important component of the Sox' rotation, because of the different look he brings.
"No doubt about it," said pitching coach John Farrell. "[Wakefield] is going to benefit from Daisuke's power and secondary pitches from last night, and Julian [Tavarez, this afternoon's scheduled starter] will benefit from Wakefield's knuckleball, just like Donnelly and Papelbon did coming behind him. Our staff has a number of contrasting styles and approaches to hitters. It's a very good group, not only in talent but in terms of contrasting styles."
Mirabelli now has homered in each of his last two starts. That's two more home runs than starting catcher Jason Varitek has in his first 33 at-bats.
"For me, it's just like with Wake, it's mechanical," said Mirabelli, who is coming off his worst season offensively in the big leagues, one in which his .192 average was second lowest among players with 200 or more plate appearances. "I have to have a good step and body position.
"When my body gets out of whack, my swing suffers. It becomes longer and sweeping. Last year, you saw it. I wasn't the same guy mechanically. I was never able to find a rhythm, a comfort zone, and my numbers obviously showed it."
Mirabelli, who came into camp in better shape after his salary was cut nearly in half, said he worked extremely hard in the offseason and in camp on his swing. The best part of the early returns?
"It's huge for my confidence," he said. "And confidence is such a huge factor in this game."
The Sox scored all four of their runs off Ohka, who played high school baseball in the same Kyoto prefecture and at the same time as one Sox pitcher, Hideki Okajima, and wore the same number as Matsuzaka (18) when he was with the Red Sox. (That will make a terrific trivia question one day: Name the two Sox players who wore No. 18 right before Johnny Damon and Matsuzaka. Answer: Ohka and Willie Banks, both in 2001.)
Ohka allowed just one base runner, Manny Ramírez, with a leadoff walk in the second, until Lowell connected with two outs in the fifth. Mirabelli led off the sixth with his home run, and Ortiz went the opposite way to lead off the seventh. Mirabelli also drove in J.D. Drew with a two-out single in the seventh off Victor Zambrano.
"It's not like we're tearing the cover off the ball," manager Terry Francona said of a Sox offense that has scored five runs in two games here. "But when you're a run or two better at the end of the night, there's a heck of a lot more to talk about."
Gordon Edes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.