Wakefield on top of it all in beating Braves
ATLANTA - When they have needed him - the day after Daisuke Matsuzaka’s disastrous start in Oakland, in a duel against Cliff Lee in Cleveland - Tim Wakefield has been there for the Red Sox. And it was no different yesterday, an oven-like heat bearing down on him in Atlanta, as the Sox needed every one of his 88 pitches.
It has been this way for years, though there have been bad games and missteps and injuries along the way, of course. For so long that, after 15 years with the Red Sox, the slow knucklers have caught up to the rockets of the Rocket. Wakefield, with the 382d start of his Sox career, tied Roger Clemens for the most starts in club history, a mark of not just longevity but excellence.
“It’s pretty cool,’’ Wakefield said. “Just to be mentioned in the names that I’m mentioned with is pretty cool. I think it’s a testament not only to longevity and perseverance, but also the organization for keeping me around and giving me a chance to still pitch in a Red Sox uniform.’’
Wakefield also owns the most starts with his current club of anyone in the major leagues at the moment. Considering he had four seasons in which he made 17 or fewer starts - from 1999 through 2002 - that makes the achievement all the more impressive.
And though Jonathan Papelbon nearly spoiled it, allowing a blast to the warning track by Brian McCann that almost ended in a collision between Jacoby Ellsbury and J.D. Drew in the ninth, Wakefield had the tie and the win yesterday afternoon, the latter coming by a 1-0 score.
“He continues to just pitch his rear end off,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “That’s a tough day for everybody. I know it’s hot. Great baseball weather. But he just keeps going out there, doing what he’s supposed to do. It’s fun to watch. I’m proud of him.’’
Makes sense. With the outing, Wakefield ran his record to 10-3, tying him for the top win mark in MLB with Roy Halladay and Kevin Slowey.
“It feels really good to be able to have 10 wins before the All-Star break,’’ Wakefield said. “The most important thing is us winning games. Today was one of those outings where Javy Vazquez was pitching well and you’re facing a tough lineup over there that can do damage. I was able to keep them at bay for six innings.’’
He later added, “It’s pretty cool to win a 1-0 game. I’ve been on the opposite end of those quite a bit. Kind of nice to be on the right side.’’
But was that the best part of the game? Or was it his single in the third inning, one of just six hits Vazquez gave up?
“That’s a good question,’’ Wakefield said, laughing. “Maybe the hit.’’
Although he didn’t move off first base - he joked that he thought briefly of stealing - it was a single in the sixth that provided the winning margin. With two outs, Kevin Youkilis worked a walk. And then, with a couple of pitches that appeared nearly too close to take (and brought a mix of cheers and boos from the 48,151 and their split allegiances at Turner Field), David Ortiz followed with another walk.
Mark Kotsay (late of the Braves) stepped to the plate. It was the second straight start for Kotsay, having taken Ellsbury’s place in the lineup Friday, and replacing Jason Bay yesterday. Losing Bay, the American League leader in RBIs didn’t shut down the Sox. Kotsay picked up the runner.
“[Vazquez] kept me off balance my first two at-bats, a walk and a strikeout,’’ Kotsay said. “The changeup seemed to be the best pitch that he was throwing against me. So I think he had that in his mind that I was probably sitting changeup.
“He threw a good fastball the pitch before a backdoor slider that I ended up driving into left field. Fortunately I won the battle. He could have very easily won the battle, and it could have been a different outcome.’’
He lined a single to left to bring Youkilis home.
“I don’t know why [Kotsay] does, he seems to go under the radar sometimes, but not from us,’’ Francona said. “You can move him in to play defense, that’s a valuable guy. And he gets the game-winning hit. Because Vazquez was throwing, some of that stuff was filthy. Some of that offspeed stuff was unhittable today.’’
In the bottom of the inning, Wakefield allowed a leadoff single to Gregor Blanco, but got out of it without allowing a run.
Then he was done, his start in the record books.
Wakefield allowed just three hits in his six innings, all singles, before yielding to Manny Delcarmen. On a steamy, 95-degree Saturday afternoon, he made a hard-luck loser out of Vazquez.
For his part, Vazquez allowed just those six hits over his 7 2/3 innings, all singles until the blow that knocked Vazquez out of the game, a two-out triple after an 11-pitch at-bat by Youkilis.
But it was ultimately meaningless. Because after an intentional walk to Ortiz, Kotsay ended the inning with a fly out to center field, preserving the one-run game. It was enough.
“We got a run today,’’ Francona said. “There’s probably a lot of days where if Wake doesn’t throw the way he does and our bullpen, everybody’s coming in and saying, ‘What’s wrong with the offense?’ Their guy pitched great, and we did enough to win. That’s what’s most important.’’