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For Wakefield, starting is a fight to the finish

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  June 17, 2009 10:08 AM

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This afternoon, on the day following his 380th career start as a member of the Red Sox, Tim Wakefield will report for work feeling relatively spry, presumably, and extraordinarily blessed, almost certainly. Wakefield is 42 years old, a father of two small children. Before long, he will have started more games for the Red Sox than any pitcher in team history.

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That bears repeating.

Sometime in the next few weeks, Wakefield will have started more games for the Red Sox than any pitcher in team history.

"That’s pretty cool," Wakefield said last night following a six-inning stint that led to his ninth win and an 8-2 Red Sox victory over the Florida Marlins. "I think it says that maybe I’ve been able to endure some adversity through my career here, going from starting to closing and things like that. I say this all the time, but I feel lucky wearing a Red Sox uniform for my 15th season. That’s special to be able to be able to say that."

Here’s what else it says: He has taken the ball, unfailingly, which is no small feat in any age because it speaks of durability, consistency, and reliability. First, you have to stay healthy enough to pitch. Second, you have to be good enough to stay in the rotation. At the moment, the Red Sox’ current all-time leader in games started is Roger Clemens, who made 382 starts for the Sox from 1984-96. Depending on what the Red Sox do what their rotation when John Smoltz comes off the disabled list next week, Wakefield will either tie or overtake Clemens by the All-Star break.

At that moment, Wakefield will have thrown the first pitch of a Red Sox game more times than anyone who ever has worn the Boston uniform. More times than Clemens, Cy Young, Luis Tiant, or Pedro Martinez. More times than Lefty Grove, Mel Parnell, or Bruce Hurst. Wakefield has won his share (173) and lost his share (148), but he has always been there.

Indeed, when Woody Allen suggested that 90 percent of life is just showing up, he must have had baseball in mind. Consistency is the most underrated aspect of the game. For a manager like Terry Francona, being able to write Jason Bay's name on his lineup card every day provides an enormous amount of comfort and stability, independent of whether Bay’s production makes him an All-Star or a relatively mediocre performer. For the skipper, a guy like Bay is one less thing to think about. Since Derek Jeter came into the major leagues in 1996, he has played more games than anybody in baseball, providing the Yankees with both an identity and concrete footing.

In Wakefield’s case, he has faced 11,475 batters and thrown 41,906 pitches while wearing the Boston uniform. During that same period of time (from 1995-present) in the majors, only Andy Pettitte, Tom Glavine, Jamie Moyer, Mike Mussina, and Randy Johnson have exceeded Wakefield in both categories. None of those men has spent that time with one club. (John Smoltz also has exceeded Wakefield in both, but his career in Atlanta began earlier.) For all of the changes that have taken place in Boston, from the front office to the last locker in the clubhouse, Wakefield has continued to take the ball.

"He’s so consistent with a pitch that’s not consistent," Francona said last night. "You look up in the sixth or seventh inning and he’s got a chance to win."

In the early stages of Wakefield’s career in Boston, he was particularly vulnerable to streaks. He started his Red Sox career by going 14-1 with a 1.65 ERA in his first 17 starts, then went 2-7 with a 5.60 ERA in his next 10 outings. Subsequent seasons were equally unpredictable at times, Wakefield oscillating between long streaks of brilliance and borderline ineptitude, leading to the popular belief that Wakefield is "streaky."

The truth? Wakefield stopped being streaky a long time ago. His skids now are usually limited to two or three starts, making him no different than any other pitcher in baseball. Josh Beckett has thrown in the mid-90s for the better part of his career and he has those lapses, too. The 42-year-old Wakefield is different from the 32-year-old Wakefield in that he now knows how to grind his way through five or six innings on nights when his trademark knuckleball suffers from its schizophrenic tendencies, a sign of his growth and maturity as a pitcher.

Last night, Wakefield said he feels "unbelievable" physically compared to other years at this time. Given the injuries that have limited him at the end of the last two seasons, there is legitimate question as to whether he can hold up in late August, September and October. (The Red Sox plan for this out of necessity.) This year, in an attempt to combat the effects of age, Wakefield has altered his maintenance and conditioning program with the hopes of lasting longer. Following each start, he stretches more than he ever has before icing his arm. He is doing less work with weights, particularly on those days when he is scheduled to throw between starts, and more cardiovascular work. So far the results have been positive for both the player and team, Wakefield leading the club in victories (nine) while throwing essentially as many innings (82) as Beckett (82 1/3) or Jen Lester (81 1/3) in the same number of starts (13).

Somewhere along the line, someone developed the theory that the knuckleball puts less strain on a pitcher's arm than the conventional repertoire. That is a fallacy. For Wakefield, throwing his fastball at 74 mph takes every bit the toll on him that Beckett’s 95-mph fastball puts on Beckett’s arm, particularly at this stage of Wakefield’s major league existence. It is why the Red Sox no longer pitch him on short rest or between starts. The extended life of a knuckleballer’s career has more to do with the pitch’s movement than it does with the velocity, which is why men like Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough could continue to pitch well into their 40s.

So long as they stayed healthy, of course.

"He’s pitched a lot of innings in his career," Francona said of Wakefield. "And we want him to continue to do that."

A whopping 380 starts into his Red Sox career, Wakefield is chugging right along, thank you very much.

And on Sunday, for the 381st time in Wakefield’s Red Sox career, his manager will happily hand him the ball again.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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