Wakefield, Sox draw first blood
Division leaders are held in check
The Red Sox have searched for solutions to each primary problem that surfaced during the early portion of their season: the rise of the Blue Jays; an abundance of errors from their shortstops; and, most pressing, the decline of David Ortiz. The closest thing to a panacea they've found was the salve they used last night. Simply wait for Tim Wakefield's turn in the rotation.
In the Sox' first game of the year against the division-leading Blue Jays, Wakefield dominated for eight efficient innings to lift them to a 2-1 victory at Fenway Park before 37,830, his team-best fifth victory.
However, the same challenges face the Red Sox: The Blue Jays remain in first; Julio Lugo made a throwing error; and Ortiz, in his return to the third spot in the batting order, went 0 for 3 with two strikeouts.
For one night, a 42-year-old knuckleballer made those issues irrelevant. Wakefield has pitched his best this year when the Sox needed him most. Last night, with the Sox coming off a 2-4 road trip, qualified. Wakefield allowed only five hits and served as his own bridge to Jonathan Papelbon, who pitched a perfect ninth and slammed the door on his 11th save in 11 chances.
"It seems like he has responded to some times when things aren't going perfect," manager Terry Francona said.
In his second start this season, Wakefield nearly threw a no-hitter, the night after the bullpen worked 10 innings. While the other four starters have largely scuffled, Wakefield has complied a 3.59 ERA.
"I guess I've just been that guy," Wakefield said. "It's not like I'm trying harder. Knowing the situation, I'm just going out there, and my job as a starter is to go deep in a game and keep us in the game as long as possible. Tonight was one of those nights where I had very good stuff."
The Sox offense, again, got no lift from Ortiz. He received an ovation before each of his four plate appearances, the crowd saving its loudest cheers for his final at-bat. With Dustin Pedroia on first, Ortiz walked to the plate as Fenway shook from the crowd's chants of "Pa-pi! Pa-pi!"
"Before that at-bat, all of us were like, 'This is the at-bat. This is the one,' " Jason Bay said.
The movie-script moment ended with a groan. B.J. Ryan struck out Ortiz, who walked back to the dugout pained as ever, his homerless streak reaching 133 at-bats for the season, his slump growing to 1 for his last 17.
But Wakefield made Ortiz's slump a problem for another day. In his last start, he allowed the Angels 11 hits in 4 2/3 innings, taking his second loss of the season. He noticed intricate flaws with his mechanics, which led to improper location.
In one side session, Wakefield snuffed out the culprits. Last night's results immediately reassured him. He is at his best when opposing teams pop the ball up. The Blue Jays popped out eight times to the infield, three handled by catcher George Kottaras.
There should have been a ninth. With one out and a man on second in the eighth, Aaron Hill skied to very shallow right. Bailey and Pedroia each floated toward the ball, but neither made a move before it fell to the grass. With two on and one out, the Sox up a run and two relievers warming, Francona left Wakefield in. Wakefield felt thankful.
Alex Rios and Vernon Wells each flied softly to left.
"Everybody's got that one stopper on their staff," Bay said. "Right now, we've been searching around for that one guy, and Wake's been it for us.
"He's been that guy, when the bullpen's needed a rest, he's gone eight innings. When we've needed a win, he's gone out there and put up zeros. He's been that consistent guy."
The Red Sox cobbled only a pair of runs for the second straight game. Mike Lowell led off the second with a single, and J.D. Drew followed with a walk. With one out, Jeff Bailey walked to the plate.
Bailey became essential when Kevin Youkilis was placed on the 15-day disabled list last week. For the first time in his 12-year professional career, Bailey could walk into a major league clubhouse and expect to see his name on a lineup card. But Youkilis will be activated today. While Bailey will remain in the majors, he'll lose his starting spot.
"Yeah, I knew," Bailey said. "But you don't let that affect you."
At the plate with two strikes, Bailey saw Lowell creeping off second as Brian Tallet stood on the mound. Watching video alone, Lowell had noticed that Tallet "no-looks" with runners who typically don't steal bases on second - he comes to set and pitches without checking the runner. Lowell saw his moment, and he bolted.
Bailey noticed, and ripped a single to left. Lowell sprinted home, scoring a run he wouldn't have if not for the tip he noticed. Kottaras followed with a fly ball to left, which allowed Drew to scamper home.
After that, Tallet shut down the Sox. He retired 12 of the final 13 batters he faced, exiting after six innings and 102 pitches.
But he also exited trailing, 2-1, because Wakefield's knuckleballs mystified the Blue Jays - aside from the first pitch of the fifth inning, which Kevin Millar walloped for a home run into the Green Monster seats.
Francona considering sending Wakefield out for the ninth, but he couldn't resist the raw power of Papelbon serving as a diabolical complement to Wakefield's fluttering pitchers. Wakefield didn't mind.
"Complete games don't mean that much to me," Wakefield said. "Winning ballgames means more."