A reprieve from all that white-knuckle time
It had become a burden more than a celebration. Tim Wakefield was going for 200 wins and was stuck in neutral.
Seven times he tried. Seven times he failed. No pitcher ever required more starts to win 200. The Wake-200 Tour touched down in Seattle, Minnesota, Chicago, and Kansas City. Last week it went international (Toronto). Nothing changed. Wake would start and he would not win. Something happened every time. Thrice he left with a lead and the bullpen blew it. The Wake Watch exceeded the Yaz Watch of 1979. It was like waiting for Generalissimo Franco to die in 1975. Wake’s starts became like Jack E. Robinson’s campaigns; doomed to fail.
Each time, sad-eyed Wake said the right things. It wasn’t about personal glory. It was all about the team.
Then came an ugly-wrapped gift. The Sox staggered through a dismal 1-6 road trip, drawing comparisons to the ’64 Phillies, the ’78 Sox, and the fall of Saigon.
When the Sox got back to Fenway last night, no one was talking about Wakefield’s 200th. It truly was about the team, not about individual honor. The Sox were in full-blown crisis mode.
In this spirit of team above self, Wakefield delivered. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a win; a win the Sox needed badly.
Wakefield and the Sox pummeled the Blue Jays, 18-6, at Fenway (special thanks to wrecking ball Dustin Pedroia, who had two homers, a double, and a sac fly). He gave up five runs and six hits (two homers) over six innings. He threw 96 pitches. He coughed up a couple of leads, but finished strong, retiring the Jays 1-2-3 on nine pitches in the sixth. It was still a 6-5 game at that point.
When Boston scored four times in the bottom of the sixth, manager Terry Francona felt safe turning the game over to the beleaguered bullpen. Daniel Bard failed Wake and the Sox last week when in Toronto when Wakefield handed over an 8-5 lead. But it all worked last night. Alfredo Aceves and Junichi Tazawa finished the job and Wake got the coveted 200 ball.
Two hundred wins. Not bad for a former first baseman who’s been in professional baseball since 1989. And now he is one of 89 pitchers in the modern era to win 200 games. It is something that Sandy Koufax failed to do. It is a mark of a guy who endured.
“I’m very grateful,’’ said Wakefield after he was drenched in champagne by teammates (Jonathan Papelbon’s specialty) in a postgame celebration on the Fenway lawn. “No. 1 that it’s over with. And I’m happy that it was here at Fenway Park in front of the home crowd. Having my teammates come back out of the clubhouse onto the field was special.’’
Wakefield is 45 years old. Older than Fenway dirt. He played with Roger Clemens and John Valentin. He pitched for the Sox in the 1995 playoffs. He pitched for Kevin Kennedy, Jimy Williams, Joe Kerrigan, Grady Little, and Francona. He was here when John Harrington said Fenway had to be torn down. He was here with Carl Everett and Wes Chamberlain. He pitched for the Sox when Nomar Garciaparra was a .370 hitter.
Wakefield is the guy who gave up the walkoff homer to Aaron Boone in 2003. That seems like a million years ago, no? Wake wondered if the gopher pitch would doom him to a lifetime in the Bill Buckner basement. But that never happened. Sox fans know a gamer when they see one and Wakefield was forgiven immediately. We made Grady the goat and Wake got back on board.
He’s Eveready Wake. He always has his spikes on. He’s always ready to bail out the team.
Oddly, his greatest moment may have been the beating he took in the infamous 2004 Game 3 playoff against the Yankees. Francona needed a body to save the bullpen. Wake raised his hand. He suffered the rout. And he set up Derek Lowe, Pedro Martinez, and Curt Schilling for the final four games, all wins. It was history and Wake played the role of the silent hero. When Schill and Friends were lauded, Francona never failed to cite the guy who saved the bullpen to set up the comeback.
“That was as special to me as anything,’’ remembered Francona. “It was very meaningful. That’ll always be one of the things I remember most about him.’’
“I sacrificed my start and got a chance to save the bullpen,’’ remembered Wakefield. “That night maybe helped us get some momentum for the greatest comeback in the history of sports. That’s why that ring is so special to me.’’
Two hundred wins is pretty special also, especially for a guy who was released by the Pirates after a 5-15 season in the minors.
“I’m grateful Dan Duquette wanted to sign me,’’ he said.
The 200th was special because it stopped a major losing streak and stymied regional panic for at least a day (the Sox now lead the Rays by four games).
“Panic is unbecoming,’’ said Sox CEO Larry Lucchino. “Baseball is a tough game. I went through this a couple of times where the team lost something like seven in a row. Things happen.’’
“I think during times like these you explore your internal focus,’’ said general manager Theo Epstein. “I think it’s a mistake to attach too much meaning to what’s around the club. Nothing good comes of that. If people are panicking or giving up, fine, we have something to prove. These guys have been with each other since early February. They can’t worry about what people think. We think keeping focused on the internal is best. We want to focus on things we can do and turn this around. We just have to be ourselves.’’
They looked like their old selves last night. It helped that Wakefield gave them their first six-inning start in a week.
“We needed to win and it was probably appropriate that it was Wake,’’ said Francona.
The losing streak is over. The Wake Watch is over. Maybe now the Sox can get back to focusing on the playoff preparation instead of the collapse.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.