He's not on the cover, so don't worry about a jinx, but Red Sox starter Tim Wakefield is finally getting some national attention for the surprising success he's having this season at the age of 41.
Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly has a column in this week's issue (hits newsstands today) headlined "Catch as Catch Can," which takes a look at the Red Sox 16-game winner whose knuckler has been harder to hit than ever before.
Nowadays Wakefield's knuckler flits around like a gum wrapper in a hurricane, which means we get the joy of watching hulking batters strike out on 66 mph puffballs. The other day A.J. Pierzynski of the White Sox swung belt-high at one that the catcher caught in the dirt. "You're better off trying to hit Wakefield when you're in a drunken stupor," Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi has said.
Reilly talks to Doug Mirabelli about the adventures associated with being on the receiving end of Tim's tosses:
The Red Sox have a guy on the roster--Doug Mirabelli--whose only job is to catch Wakefield, which is like saying his only job is to fill the Grand Canyon with a slotted spoon. "It's a very empty feeling to think you're squeezing the ball and then to realize it's not in there," Mirabelli says. "You panic. You jump up and start to run, but you have no idea which way to go."
Nice guy, Mirabelli. Can't hit a lick, though--.232 lifetime. Boston traded him to San Diego two years ago and gave the job to a hotshot hitter, Josh Bard. He lasted five starts with Wakefield, who went 1-4. Bard let more balls get by him than a blind goalie. The Red Sox had to go hat in hand to the Padres to get back Mirabelli for Bard; Mirabelli was hitting .182 in San Diego, and Boston still had to throw in a good reliever and 100 grand.
"It's not fun," Mirabelli admits. "It's sort of like the Karate Kid, trying to catch a fly with chopsticks. But when you go a whole game without a passed ball, it's very satisfying."
Wakefield himself, doesn't offer a lot of insight as why the knuckleball is so baffling to hitters:
How and why the knuckleball works is a mystery to Wakefield. His knuckler was hopping around like popcorn in a microwave at the start of the season, then went flat for most of May and June, and now it's back at its hiccupping best. But ask him about the pitch, and it's like talking to Tolstoy about writer's block. "I don't know, and I don't want to know," Wakefield says.
Wake, who pitched a side session yesterday without any recurrence of the back soreness that scratched him from last Friday's start, is set to start Thursday night in Baltimore.