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Starts and stops tough on Wakefield

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / September 9, 2010

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Tim Wakefield is under contract next season for a $2 million base, after his start last night nudged him over 130 innings, which triggered a $500,000 bump in his 2011 salary, still small potatoes for a guy who has meant so much in Sox history.

His role for 2011 seems to be the same as 2010: He’s only in the rotation if there’s an injury.

Can he take the frustration of his role another year? The answer, apparently, is yes. The milestones he wants to reach — including the team mark for wins shared by Cy Young and Roger Clemens at 192, and 200 career wins — are becoming more difficult to attain. With last night’s victory over the Rays, he’s 13 wins away from tying the Sox record, seven away from 200 wins for his career.

Since the All-Star break, he has been a spot starter and a garbage-time pitcher, and that can’t be sitting well with him. Wakefield has not had one of his best years, even for this role. The last time he started before last night was Aug. 25, when he was notified two hours before game time that the Sox decided to pull a switcheroo. Wakefield did OK that night, taking a 4-2 loss against the Mariners and Felix Hernandez.

He is 0-1 with a 3.74 ERA in 11 relief appearances and 4-9 with a 5.56 ERA in 18 starts.

“It’s been difficult,’’ acknowledged Wakefield. “Just take it a day at a time and do the best I can.’’

He made it through five innings on 86 pitches last night, allowing five runs (four earned) and six hits, and when the Sox scored three runs in the bottom of the fifth, it put Wakefield in position for the win.

While it hasn’t been smooth, this is the way Sox management drew it up with Wakefield. They expected him to make 15-20 starts as the plug-in guy. He actually started the season in the rotation because Daisuke Matsuzaka was on the disabled list. Wakefield made four April starts, three May starts, five in June, four in July, and one in August.

While it may have been the way the Sox drew it up, it probably isn’t the way Wakefield envisioned it. In and out of the bullpen. In and out of the rotation.

While he’d love to make another start or two before the season ends, Wakefield said, “I don’t know if it’s going to happen.’’

Wakefield signed an incentive-filled two-year deal with bases of $3.5 million in 2010 and $1.5 million in 2011. In addition to his bump for 2011, he has earned $250,000 for making starts 11-15 and $75,000 per start over his last two starts. So while he won’t fulfill all of his incentives, he has made $900,000 in bonuses.

Money is important, of course, but at this stage of his career, Wakefield is more interested in being a regular in the rotation so he can end his career on a high note, helping the team as an innings-eater who is more than capable of rattling off a few wins.

Wakefield started slowly last night, not helped by Marco Scutaro’s error at shortstop in the first inning, which led to a run. Wakefield then surrendered a three-run homer to B.J. Upton in the second. But then came the Good Wake. He found that ever-important release point, repeating the good delivery until Jason Bartlett doubled to drive in the Rays’ fifth run in the fourth inning.

The inconsistency he has exhibited this season is probably in direct correlation to the inconsistency of his schedule. At 44, Wakefield is the oldest pitcher to ever step on the mound for the Sox, but the best thing for him may be to be traded to a National League team, which would mean forgoing his dream of becoming the winningest Red Sox pitcher. But he probably won’t do that, even though he might be able to trick NL hitters who haven’t seen him much.

He could retire, but with a guaranteed $2 million coming his way in ’11, why do that?

Wakefield pointed out he’s under contract for next year. Last night he became the oldest Red Sox pitcher to win a game. It sure sounds like he’s coming back.

When asked what meant more to him, winning 200 for his career or winning 193 with the Red Sox, he said, “193.’’

“I hope I get the opportunity to get that,’’ Wakefield said of the 193 victories in a Boston uniform. “Hopefully, I get the opportunities.’’

The Sox knew he was not going to be one of their top five starters this season. For all the speculation in spring training that Clay Buchholz might start the season in the bullpen, there was never a chance of that.

The Sox wanted Buchholz starting from Day One, and that’s exactly what happened.

But what rotation stays healthy all season? The Sox had injuries to Matsuzaka, Buchholz, and Josh Beckett, which gave Wakefield opportunities to start. He produced nine quality starts of the 18 he’s been given, which is one more than Beckett, who has made 17 starts.

This wasn’t the best year for Wakefield, and if you choose to judge him by it, your conclusion may be that he should hang it up. But think very carefully about that, for even though the knuckleball can go away, it can come back with a vengeance — something we’ve seen time and time again over the last 15 years.

Wakefield is still a valuable commodity, but one who has to have some consistency in his role to optimize his skills. That’s true of anyone.

Can he have that in Boston? That’s what he’ll have to decide.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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