Print and Go Back ESPN.com: BlogsColumns [Print without images]

Saturday, September 17, 2011
Can Wakefield add to his legacy?

By Gordon Edes
ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- The old knuckleballer has been here before.

Of course, when you've been around as long as Tim Wakefield has, there are few places you haven't been. There are grandfathers who swear they watched Wakefield pitch when they were kids.

History doesn't repeat itself with Wakefield; it takes laps around him. Ask Wakefield about the first contract he ever signed, and you half expect him to say, the Magna Carta. Yes, Wakefield owns an iPad, but you also wonder if the family's old black-and-white TV is still stashed in his basement.

Wakefield's teammates imagine what it takes to make it to Cooperstown. Wakefield has pitched against a dozen Hall of Famers, including one, Rickey Henderson, who began his big league career in the '70s, which is the equivalent of the Ice Age for these guys.

Tim Wakefield
Tim Wakefield, who last week reached the 200-win milestone, gets the ball Sunday in one of Boston's biggest games of the season.

But on Sunday afternoon, with the faint scent of champagne still lingering in the aftermath of his 200th victory celebration, Wakefield is being asked to take the ball in a high-stakes game against Tampa Bay left-hander David Price, a terrible mismatch on paper.

Price is nearly two decades younger than Wakefield, young and strong at 26 compared with shopworn and middle-aged for the 45-year-old Wakefield. He won 19 games last season, more than Wakefield has ever won, and would be much better than his current 12-12 if the Rays hadn't scored two runs or fewer for him 11 times this season.

Price's ERA is 3.34, to Wakefield's 5.31. He has 206 strikeouts, and opponents are hitting just .229 against him. He has won all three of his career starts in Fenway Park (with a 1.25 ERA) and is 3-1 in four starts against the Red Sox this season, including two wins in the Fens: 3-2 over Jon Lester in April and 4-0 over John Lackey last month.

Wakefield used to own the Rays, racking up a 17-2 record in his first 26 starts against the expansion team, which didn't exist when he began his big league career. But in his last nine starts against Tampa Bay, he is just 2-5 with a 7.24 ERA, including a 4-0 loss at the Trop in June.

The Rays have believed in Price ever since they promoted him in the middle of a pennant race in 2008, calling him up in September the way they did this month with another lefty with a scorching fastball, Matt Moore, who struck out Dustin Pedroia on three pitches with the tying run on third to end the seventh inning in Saturday's 4-3 win.

Another Tampa Bay pitcher has the nickname "Big Game," but that's only because James Shields got there first. Price has been front and center practically from the day he was drafted No. 1 overall out of Vanderbilt.

"I like our chances,'' Rays outfielder B.J. Upton said. "Definitely, definitely like our chances.''

Even more so when you consider the Sox haven't hit Rays pitchers -- any Rays pitchers -- all season. The Sox managed seven hits Saturday, six singles and Mike Aviles' double, and raised their average against Tampa Bay to .187, which also is their average in the Fens against the Rays.

Adrian Gonzalez, the MVP candidate, has two hits in his last 41 at-bats against the Rays dating to June 16. During the Fox broadcast Saturday afternoon, intrepid reporter Ken Rosenthal said that Gonzalez's surgically repaired shoulder is bothering him.

"AGon shoulder issue natural byproduct of surgery,'' Rosenthal tweeted during the game. "Should be fine down road. Unable to take BP on field right now."

Gonzalez was asked about it afterward. "I'm not talking about that,'' he said.

Well, OK, then. Here's the story: Gonzalez has been dealing with fatigue in the shoulder, a condition that became especially bothersome after the All-Star break, when some folks were wondering if the Home Run Derby had robbed him of his stroke. That wasn't the issue. And it's not as if he has reinjured the shoulder. Because of the surgery, he wasn't able to do his normal regimen of shoulder-strengthening exercises during the offseason, and he isn't able to do his usual work during the season to maintain his strength.

"Not talking about that,'' he said. "Fine. End of the year.''

Gonzalez has had one cortisone injection this season, according to a baseball source, and don't be surprised if he has another in advance of the playoffs.

But that topic was off-limits. Gonzalez did, however, address his lack of success against the Rays, including the 0-for-8 he has taken in the first three games of this series. Execution, or good advance work by the Rays?

"It's execution on both parts,'' he said. "I'm swinging at pitches I shouldn't be swinging at. I'm not mechanically right, and I'm chasing pitches down. I could have walked every at-bat in this series so far. Just being overaggressive and trying to make things happen, instead of just taking the walks."

Is that because of the absence of the man who usually bats behind him, Kevin Youkilis, and the back issues impacting David Ortiz?

"Nothing to do with that, you know?'' he said. "If I was mechanically right, I'd be walking every at-bat."

When your best hitter the last two days against the Rays has been Mike Aviles, you look to your pitching to bail you out. Josh Beckett and the 'pen succeeded in doing so Friday night. Lester faltered Saturday.

David Price
Rays left-hander David Price, who is nearly two decades younger than Tim Wakefield, will try to bring his team within two games of Boston in the wild-card chase.

And now, with the Rays poised to pull within two games Sunday, the Sox turn to Wakefield.

Candle-lighting time?

Well, maybe you should pull out the scrapbook (does anyone still keep a scrapbook?) and flip back a few pages until you arrive at Sept. 23, 2008. That day the Red Sox were playing the Cleveland Indians, there were six games left in the season, and the Sox had yet to clinch a playoff spot. This didn't look like the night they would do so, either.

On the mound for the Indians: left-hander Cliff Lee, the majors' leading winner, with a 22-2 record.

Pitching for the Olde Towne Team: Tim Wakefield, who had lasted just 2 1/3 innings in his previous start, giving up six runs.

By the end of the night, the Sox were popping corks. For the first time in his career, Wakefield had won a playoff clincher, beating Lee and the Indians 5-4. Wakefield went six in that game, giving up all four runs.

What do the Sox expect from the old knuckleballer Sunday?

"That he goes out there and gives us his efforts, like he always does,'' catcher Jason Varitek said. "Just want a quality start out of him.''

Imagine. Win No. 201 might wind up being bigger than the milestone number itself. Varitek, for one, believes that having the 200th out of the way might be a plus.

"I think it can't hurt,'' Varitek said. "It was pretty emotional for him, all the way around. Probably imagine that it's a good thing, especially since it was hanging over his head for a little while.''

The Rays have been hanging around, too, and are now close enough to be flagged for encroachment, if this was the NFL.

Tampa Bay has David Price. The Red Sox have Tim Wakefield. The Rays win, and the needle on the pressure valve shoots up. The Sox win, and the Rays all but go away. This is the first day of the rest of the old knuckleballer's life. And maybe the biggest.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.