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Wakefield was unique, and at times, great

Posted by Staff  February 17, 2012 04:16 PM

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He’s not going to the Hall of Fame. Cooperstown, that is. As far as the one the Red Sox have invented, he’s a total no-brainer.

We should probably all be careful with the use of the word “great.” But it’s safe to say that Tim Wakefield is one of the more notable Red Sox players we’ve ever known. At the very least, may we agree on one thing? His was a unique Red Sox career.

It peaked right at the beginning. His first two months in a Red Sox uniform were beyond spectacular. Elevated from Pawtucket to the big club on May 27, 1995, he threw seven innings of one-run, five-hit ball in his Red Sox debut, a 12-1 triumph in Anaheim. He had embarked on what was undoubtedly the greatest prolonged stretch of knuckleball pitching in baseball history, and it continued with a 7 1/3 innings, two-hit shutout performance in Oakland two nights later. That was the first of many times over the next 17 season that Tim Wakefield would provide a major service to his manager and teammates simply by being able to take the mound in the first place. The Stat Guys who rule baseball thought nowadays have numbers to suit any occasion, but I defy any of them to calculate the numerical value of a guy who can save starting rotations and bullpens by the simple expedient of answering the bell, as Tim Wakefield did throughout his entire Red Sox career.

I mean what I said about the historic importance of Wakefield’s first two months in Boston. Hall of Famers Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm are the two gold standard luminaries among all knuckleball pitchers, but neither ever had a two-month stretch where they pitched at the level Wakefield did from mid-May through mid-July in 1995. No knuckleball pitcher has.

In his first 17 starts for the Red Sox, Tim Wakefield was 14-1 with a 1.65 ERA. He never allowed more than three earned runs in any game. He flirted with no-hitters on a few occasions. He beat the Mariners in a 10-inning complete game, the only Seattle run coming on his own throwing error.

Such an extra-terrestial level of pitching could not last, and it didn’t. He never pitched quite like that again. But ask yourself: how many have? As great as Pedro was in his prime, he was never any better than that.

So Wake settled into his career, slowly building a resume that would make sure he would not be forgotten when he retired. His composite 162-game average stats are a perfect reflection of his ability: 12-11, 4.41 ERA and a WHIP of 1.350. He walked guys, he struck out guys and he gave up a lot of home runs. More than anyone in his time, he threw pitches that wound up at the backstop. He has left the game as the current active leader in walks, earned runs, hit-by-pitches and, of course wild pitches (Haven’t seen the passed ball numbers, but what do you think?). He also retires as the active leader in innings pitched and --- how sweet --- wins.

He twice won a pair of games in a post-season series --- 10 years apart. The first was for the Pirates in his rookie season of 1993 and the second was for the Red Sox in 2003. That’s the series against the Yankees culminating in the Aaron Boone Game 7 walk-off. It was an unspeakably cruel irony that Wakefield, again fulfilling a role only he on the staff was capable of even attempting, was the loser after his two noble efforts that had given the Red Sox a chance to win.

A year later he saved the season against those same Yankees with a splendid relief job in Game 5 by striking out Ruben Sierra with the go-ahead run on third in the 14th inning.

I’m not going to dwell on what happened this year. He was pitching nicely until he was left out there too long than that night in Chicago. I had a rule for the aging Wake by that time: You do not send him out for the seventh inning with anything less than a three-run lead. Terry Francona violated that rule. Wake lost the game, and, with few exceptions, never pitched well again. And now it is over.

When he was up he got hit and hit hard. When he was awful, he was really awful. Ah, but when he was getting it down, and when it was dancing, he was a treasure. One of the best games I ever saw him pitch was a losing effort on a Sunday afternoon in Yankee Stadium. It was doing the full “Dancing With The Stars” routine. He fanned 12, eight in one 12-batter stretch. He was ridiculously unhittable. But Jason Giambi hit a cheesy homer off the right field foul pole and he lost, 1-0. It would have been nice to have had a few runs to work with, but the opposing pitcher that day was a guy named Randy, who likewise happened to be at the top if his game. Hail to baseball. Sometimes, it’s like that.

Tim Wakefield has had one of the truly meaningful Red Sox careers. He’s the longest-serving pitcher in Sox history. The only players who have played longer in the uniform are Carl Yastrzemski, Ted Williams and Dwight Evans. But were any of them, Teddy Ballgame included, ever better doing what they did for a two-month period than Tim Wakefield was in those two glorious months in 1995?

I doubt it.

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About bob ryan's blog Opinions, observations and anecdotes from Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan.
Bob is an award-winning columnist for the Globe and the host of "Globe 10.0" on Boston.com.

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