Ailing knuckleballer may be the odd man out come October
September 22, 2009, 1:27 AM
By: Amy Nelson
KANSAS CITY -- He walks around the clubhouse practically on one leg. His gait is slowed, and at 43 years old, Tim Wakefield's back is failing him.
But he keeps on pitching, and keeps trying to help this club, just like he has for the past 14 seasons with the Red Sox. In his third start since the All-Star break and the 420th of his career, Wakefield could barely field his position and he walked seven batters -- tying his most in a Boston uniform -- in a 12-9 loss to the Royals on Monday night.
Despite walking with a limp and struggling to field his position, Tim Wakefield says he "absolutely" wants to keep pitching this season.
For a man who is doing all he can to stay on the mound, there might not be much left, as his body and age betray him. He's had cortisone shots -- at least three -- and the disc in his back, which pinches his sciatic nerve and causes weakness in his legs, likely will need surgery once the season ends. When that will be, no one could say on Monday night.
"I don't know [when he'll start again]," manager Terry Francona said. "We'll see. That's the part we have to keep monitoring. I don't think it's realistic he'll go every five days, like everybody else."
Before Monday, it had been 16 days since Wakefield had pitched, when he gave up four runs in six innings against the White Sox on Sept. 5. Since then, he's tossed bullpen sessions, had strength tests, and even had a closed-door meeting last week in Boston with team doctor Thomas Gill and general manager Theo Epstein. He had to make sure it was safe for him to pitch this way; the team and the doctor determined it was.
But Wakefield still limps when he walks in street clothes, and on Monday night he couldn't cover the bases when needed -- as in the third inning, when Josh Anderson scored on a passed ball, Wakefield wasn't even close to the plate. At times it started to pour rain, making the field slick, even for the healthy players.
"I don't know if I've ever seen a guy take the mound and can't cover first," said Paul Byrd, in awe that his teammate could even pitch, "or can't cover a bunt. He's as bad off as I've seen anybody ever who's taken the field."
Wakefield was asked what that feels like physically when trying to will his body to the bags.
"It feels as good as it looks, put it that way," he said. "I've still got to field my position the best I can."
He took responsibility for the loss, saying he gave it away. He said he "absolutely" wants to keep pitching, that he feels fine. But his body movements suggest otherwise. And luckily for the Red Sox, at least for right now, their starting pitchers had been on a roll -- indicated by their streak of 13 straight games in which they allowed three earned runs or fewer. That streak ended Monday night, when Wakefield surrendered five runs (four earned) over five innings.
That certainly does not guarantee there won't be another injury, or ineffectiveness -- particularly from Daisuke Matsuzaka, who is still on the comeback trail. But the recent run of great starting pitching gives Boston the flexibility to not have to rely on Wakefield, a rarity over the past 14 years.
Bay's power surge
Jason Bay is battling lethargy and still can't eat full meals, yet he keeps hitting; this time it was a three-run homer in the third inning, his 36th of the season, a career high. Bay has homered in four straight games, and in five of his last seven. On Sunday he homered on his 31st birthday, just as he did in 2008, on his 30th.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Bay and Hideki Matsui are the only major leaguers to homer on their birthdays in both 2008 and 2009. The only other player ever to hit birthday homers in two consecutive years for the Red Sox was Dustin Pedroia (2007 and 2008).
Before Monday's game, Bay said he was just feeling "all right." He said he had had not been tested for the H1N1 virus, commonly known as swine flu, but that his 3-year-old daughter, Addison, tested negative.
"I don't have the flu," Bay said. "I've just been lethargic, not a lot of energy."
He said he still cannot eat full meals and is relegated mostly to potato chips and pretzels.
Victor Martinez extended his hitting streak to 20 games and Dustin Pedroia ran his streak to 13 games ... Former Red Sox pitcher Lenny DiNardo started for the Royals on Monday, giving up eight runs in five innings. According to Elias, DiNardo, who has a 10-16 career record, was the sixth opposing starter in Boston's last 12 games with 10 or fewer career victories. The others were all Orioles pitchers: David Hernandez (twice), Jason Berken (twice) and Wade Davis. ... The Royals are 11-3 since Sept. 7 and are aiming to avoid a last-place finish. With the win on Monday, they are a half-game better than the Indians in the AL Central.
Amy K. Nelson
Amy K. Nelson is an award-winning journalist who covers major league baseball for ESPN.com and is part of the site's Enterprise team. Follow her on Twitter.