On July 24, Tim Wakefield notched the 199th win of his career. He’s made the attempt to capture an elusive 200th victory five times since then. Two of those starts resulted in losses, the others were no-decisions.
I have a friend who’s a dedicated Red Sox fan who has been anxiously awaiting Wakefield’s 200th, and who will unfortunately be forced to wait a bit longer after Saturday night’s no-decision. Not every unsuccessful attempt between Saturday’s start against the Royals and his 199th win back in July has been Wakefield’s fault. While he did run into trouble in the sixth inning Saturday night, reliever Matt Albers was the pitcher who really caused the game to head south.
You don’t need to be a Red Sox fan to be a fan of Wakefield. When I was 13, I obsessively followed the 1992 Pittsburgh Pirates and watched Wakefield closely when he joined the team on July 31 of that season. Not only was his first big league start impressive -- it was a complete-game victory against the Cardinals with no earned runs and six hits allowed and 10 strikeouts -- but he had a great personal story. A position player in the minor leagues, his lack of success led to the development of his knuckleball pitch. When he joined the Pirates, I had great admiration for someone who was willing to try everything possible just to achieve their dream of playing in the majors. Wakefield was the first knuckleball pitcher I remember watching, and I was mesmerized by the fluttering grace of his pitches. After the crushing loss to the Braves in the 1992 NLCS, Wakefield remained the one bright spot for me as a Pirates fan.
While Wakefield has struggled to hit the 200-win milestone, much of the Red Sox rotation has just plain struggled this summer. Even though John Lackey has an 11-9 record this season, he has an ERA north of 6 and surrenders an average of 11.2 hits per nine innings. When you sign a pitcher to a five-year, $82.5 million deal, you expect a bit more bang for your buck. At least Lackey is still healthy and pitching for his large paycheck; Daisuke Matsuzaka had Tommy John surgery earlier this year and will obviously be of no assistance as the postseason approaches. Another DL casualty is Clay Buchholz, who had a stress fracture in his lower back. Matsuzaka was inconsistent and at times quite bad on the mound. Buchholz, on the other hand, was having a solid season prior to his injury.
The Sox have tried to repair this problem. Erik Bedard, recently acquired from the Seattle Mariners, is sort of an unpredictable quantity. When he’s on his game, he has great stuff. Unfortunately, Bedard has spent much of the past few seasons on the DL. If he remains healthy and consistent throughout the remainder of the season, it could be a huge boost in place of the missing Buchholz.
Rounding out the rotation are Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, Boston’s two best and most consistent pitchers. Beckett has looked much more like the 2007 version (20-7, 3.27 ERA) than the 2010 edition (6-6, 5.78 ERA). Lester is having yet another solid season and is 12-6 with a 3.22 ERA; he surrenders an average of 7.6 hits per nine innings, fewer than his career average of 8.2.
Despite their rotation issues, the Red Sox are in a much less precarious position than some contenders. Though they’re currently locked in battle with the Yankees for first place in the AL East, they sit in a relatively comfortable position in the wild-card standings, 7.5 games ahead of Tampa Bay. In a playoff series, a 1-2 punch of Lester and Beckett would still be quite formidable, despite the issues with the rest of the rotation. The Red Sox also have one of the best offenses in baseball, as long as they don’t suffer from more injuries between now and the end of the season.
While it’s not ideal to rely on big offensive numbers in order to make up for pitching shortcomings, the Sox are still in a much better position than most teams to do so. They can hope that the weeks between now and October help them to sort out their rotation and bring back their injured players. And between now and then, you can root for Wakefield to win his 200th game. Given better support than he got Saturday, it’s a matter of time.
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