Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 15, 2011

A Deserving Wakefield Finally Gets #200

The first half of September has proven to be an unexpectedly anxious time for Red Sox Nation. Boston began the month with a slim lead over New York in the AL East, with both teams well in front of third place Tampa Bay and seemingly headed for a sure spot in the playoffs. But a string of losses including a three game sweep by the Rays last weekend has sent the Rod Sox tumbling to the point that they are looking up at the Yankees and over their shoulder at the closing Rays. But on Tuesday night, for one evening at least, anxiety was replaced by joy. Boston bludgeoned Toronto with 18 hits and as many runs in an 18-6 laugher at Fenway Park. But the real delight for Red Sox fans was that the rout gave the veteran Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield his 200th career victory.

Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates as a first baseman in 1988, Wakefield turned to pitching and the knuckler after being told that his skills as a position player would relegate him to a career in the minors. Called up from the minors midway through the 1992 season, he pitched a complete game in his major league debut, striking out ten St. Louis Cardinals on his way to victory. He went on to compile an 8-1 record down the stretch for the Pirates, who were on their way to what remains their most recent appearance in the post-season. In that year’s NLCS the 26-year old rookie twice outpitched Atlanta’s star Tom Glavine, winning both Game 3 and Game 6. But in Game 7 the Pittsburgh bullpen couldn’t get the final three outs as the Braves rallied in their last at-bat to send the Pirates home.

As good as Wakefield was during his rookie year, he was equally bad in 1993. Sent back to the minors after three early season starts in which he walked nine, nine, and ten batters, Wakefield continued to struggle when he was recalled late in the year. After spending all of 1994 in the minors, Pittsburgh released him just as the 1995 season was getting underway.

Less than a week later he signed with Boston. Initially assigned to the Sox Triple-A affiliate in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Wakefield soon got the call to make the short drive up I-95 to Boston when early season injuries depleted Boston’s starting rotation. He went on to post a 16-8 record and earn the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award. Sixteen years later, he is by far the dean of this year’s Red Sox roster, and at age 45 is the oldest player in the majors. He is also one of just two men making a living by throwing the dancing, darting, floating pitch that is the knuckleball.

During his time in a Red Sox uniform Wakefield has often played a supporting role to more famous members of the Boston rotation. Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett have all taken their turn as Boston’s ace during his tenure. But while others have come and gone, Wakefield has soldiered on, averaging more than 176 innings a year while filling a variety of roles. While most often a starter, Wakefield has also worked out of the bullpen without complaint; and even served as the team’s closer for an extended stretch in 1999 when regular 9th inning man Tom Gordon was injured, recording 15 saves in that role.

Because of his durability Wakefield in recent years has started to climb the list of all-time team leaders in a number of categories. He’s third in career wins for Boston, behind Clemens and a not-too shabby hurler named Cy Young. He’s second in wins at Fenway behind Clemens, and now leads all Red Sox pitchers in innings pitched. He will almost certainly record his 3,000th regular season inning on the mound in a Red Sox uniform during his next outing.

But Wakefield hasn’t just hung around. In 2005 he led the Sox rotation with 16 wins. As recently as 2009, he was 11-3 at the All-Star break, earning his lone selection to the mid-summer classic. Year after year, he’s earned the devotion of fans by giving them plenty to cheer about. Which is why the Fenway faithful were pulling hard for Wakefield in every start after he notched his 199th career victory on July 24th in a game in which he also recorded his 2,000th strikeout in a Red Sox uniform.

Unfortunately for both Wakefield and the fans, it took him eight more starts to record that next win. During the seven games that he was stuck on 199, he endured four no decisions and actually lowered his ERA; but with only a single exception the normally potent Red Sox offense gave the veteran little support during the stretch. Finally, on Tuesday, before more than 38,000 fans at the ancient field by Landsdowne Street and Yawkey Way, Boston’s bats broke out of their slumber and gave Tim Wakefield all the run support he would need and then some.

For the suddenly scuffling Red Sox, the win was obviously important. For the fans who long ago came to love Wakefield, it was a special night. As for the pitcher himself, it’s worth remembering that all those years ago, when he put down his first baseman’s mitt and first tried throwing a knuckleball; he said “I just want to be able to say I tried everything I could to make it.” Two hundred wins later, it’s safe to say he made it.

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Responses

  1. Great story about the importance of perseverance. It certainly paid off for him.
    Nice work, Bill


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