Even now, the time of year when the standings are more scrutinized than any other, the Toronto Blue Jays managed to sneak up on the Red Sox. They rolled into Fenway Park having won 11 of their last 12 games, forcing folks all over New England to ask yesterday morning: Are the Jays really only 6 1/2 games back for the wild card?
Yes, they were, and the hot streak added a sudden urgency to last night's 7-0 Sox thumping of Toronto in 2 hours 40 minutes, a vital victory created by a pitcher in need of such a commanding performance. Tim Wakefield bounced back from perhaps his worst start in a Sox uniform with one of his best, tossing eight shutout innings and retiring the final 13 batters he faced.
"It was exactly what we needed," said Sox manager Terry Francona. "It was a very important game."
Wakefield's knucklers, like his last start in Texas, darted and dropped with startling movement. But unlike his last start, Wakefield had a general idea of what direction they might head. He allowed only three hits and no walks, making the two RBIs apiece from Jed Lowrie and David Ortiz - not to mention the insurance, three-run blast from catcher Kevin Cash in the eighth - easily stand up.
Wakefield proved, again, that throwing a knuckleball might be the most existential act in sports: let if fly, wait to see what happens next.
"You get to him," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said, "or you don't."
Six days earlier, Wakefield recorded only five outs, walked four, and allowed four hits. Seven runs scored.
The consistent breezes and thin air in Rangers Ballpark haunt every pitcher, but the challenge doubles for Wakefield - his pitches are affected going toward the plate, not only leaving it. His knucklers bobbed uncontrollably.
Conditions posed a problem last night, too. Rain delayed the game 41 minutes, and it presented Wakefield a problem. A slippery ball complicates a knuckleballer's all-fingertips grip. It never rained quite hard enough, though, to affect Wakefield's control. He threw 65 of his 94 pitches for strikes, and never allowed a batter to settle in. On 90 percent of the 1-0 counts he faced, Wakefield threw a strike.
"Getting through eight today was huge for me," Wakefield said. "I feel great. I feel a lot better than I did last year at this time, that's for sure. I feel like it's April or May right now."
Last night, he silenced the hottest hitting team in the majors. The Blue Jays had been hitting .314 in September and romping through the American League. They didn't quite pose a serious challenge to the Red Sox in the AL East, but they were getting uncomfortably close.
"They're trying to push us," Cash said before the game. "And we're trying to knock them out."
Today, in the form of a doubleheader at Fenway, the Red Sox will receive a chance to nullify the Jays' rapid ascension. With a series sweep, the Blue Jays would have surged to within 2 1/2 games for the wild card. If the Red Sox win two today, Toronto will be 9 1/2 back, all but an afterthought.
While Tampa Bay was rained out in New York, the Red Sox righted themselves after two straight losses to the Rays and crept to two games back in the AL East.
"It was huge," Cash said. "It didn't matter if we won, 1-0 or 10-0. We needed to bounce back a little bit. We definitely did. They're as hot as anybody in baseball right now. We read the paper. We see the standings out on the Fenway Monster every night. We know where they're at."
Lowrie gave Wakefield the only run he'd need in the second inning. He came to the plate with one out and Jason Bay on third, his objective clear: smack a long fly ball, drive in the run. Toronto starter David Purcey fired a pitch not conducive to that, a cutter down and away. Lowrie lowered his body and lunged toward the outside corner as he swung. Purcey's shoulders slumped at contact. Lowrie foiled the right pitch for the situation, lifting the ball high and deep to center field. Bay scampered home. Lowrie received an ovation from the crowd and fist pumps in the dugout from his teammates.
"It's about driving through the ball," Lowrie said. "He's thinking, 'Don't let him hit a fly ball.' And I'm thinking, 'Hit a fly ball.' "
Even after Lowrie drove in another run with a double in the fourth, the Sox still held only a tenuous, 2-0 lead when Ortiz came up with two outs in the seventh. Ortiz lashed the first pitch he saw - Purcey's 120th and last - down the right-field line and into the corner. When Alex Rios fumbled the ball, Coco Crisp easily raced home from first, giving Boston a 4-0 lead and ample peace of mind.
Wakefield walked out to the mound one final time, staring down Cash through drops of rain, floating pitches through the chill. His work was finished three batters later, three ground outs. The Blue Jays' spot in the standings, for now, was one less thing to worry about.
"Huge night for us," Wakefield said. "Keep the momentum going, and hopefully we can do it again."
Adam Kilgore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org