Wakefield keeps fluttering toward 200 wins

NEW YORK – On one of those sweltering South Bronx nights when the air stands still and the asphalt bakes into a gummy ooze, the major league’s active leader in victories won another Wednesday. It wasn’t pretty. But then few of Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield’s(notes) 196 wins have been works of beauty.

The record will show he labored against the New York Yankees in an outing that held far more fortune and guile than brute dominance. He threw his knuckleball most of the time and it fluttered in all the strange and unusual ways knuckleballs do. It rose then dropped. It bounced on the ground. It skipped to the left.

“They move,” said Boston’s longtime catcher Jason Varitek(notes).

Tim Wakefield beat Brett Gardner(notes) to first base to record an out in the fourth inning.
(US Presswire)

One knuckler even managed to do what they call “the double break,” darting to the left and then dancing to the right.

Such unpredictability wears on a catcher, especially on a night with the air so thick. It also leads to walks and hits and runs and ugly statistical lines, all of which Wakefield had against the Yankees in the 11-6 victory. He looked at times like what he is: a 44-year old man, two months from 45, fooling hitters just enough to hang around for 5 1/3 innings.

But there is this, too. He won. And winning remains important, even in a modern baseball world where a pitcher’s success is measured by a litany of splendid and clever metrics designed to determine his worth. Sometimes all that matters is the victory. Sometimes pitching to a 4-0 second-inning lead is more valuable to a team than trying to throw a game for the ages.

Wakefield stood at his locker afterward and considered this thought and gave a dry chuckle.

“I’m old school,” he said in his Florida drawl. “For me, my job as a starting pitcher is to put us in position to win games.”

Then he shook his head. “It puts me closer to 200,” he added. “That’s a huge number.”

It comes as a shock that Wakefield is baseball’s active wins leader. He’s always been the pitcher on the periphery – never the star, never considered the ace. In an age where decent starting pitchers can make $10 million a year, he’s never been paid more than $4.6 million. He’s been an All-Star only once. For a time, the Red Sox had so many good starters they used him in the bullpen. It was the logical place for a pitcher without a big fastball, and it seemed to signal an end to a career that had probably stretched farther than anyone would have imagined.

That was 91 wins and two World Series championships ago.

The pitcher closest to him on the active wins list is the kind teams lust over. Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay(notes), with 177 victories, is considered the best in baseball. Halladay is tall, with wide shoulders and a fastball that roars to the plate like a midnight train. Standing in the Phillies clubhouse, Halladay looks like he could be an Olympic swimmer.

Wakefield looks like he could sell insurance, or run a neighborhood sandwich shop. His build is more local Little League president than current big league wins leader, but this has always been the beauty of baseball. You don’t have to look like Alex Rodriguez(notes) to have value. This was obvious on a steamy June night in the Bronx. Sweat dripped from the bill of Wakefield’s cap and his gray Boston jersey clung to his chest. Into the sixth inning he flicked knucklers at the fearsome Yankees and survived mostly intact with a few popups, strikeouts, walks and runs.

Later someone asked Wakefield, with surprise in his voice, if he knew he was the active leader in victories. Wakefield nodded slowly.

Tim Wakefield is 3-0 in four starts since May 22.
(AP)

“That’s old news,” he said. Then a smile spread across his lips. “Have you heard about the Lindbergh baby?”

A few years ago Wakefield realized that if he was going to stay in baseball he would have to do more than throw pitches that don’t spin. Knuckleballers have a longer lifespan than other pitchers given the relative ease of throwing the pitch. And yet there is a limit to how doughy they can become. They still have to occasionally throw other pitches. They have to field ground balls and cover first base. They do have to be somewhat athletic. So Wakefield began working out harder – lifting weights, running, all the things that come naturally to his younger teammates.

“Sometimes people think that a knuckleball pitcher can wake up and roll out of bed and pitch every day,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said as he walked through the halls of Yankee Stadium on Wednesday afternoon. “I hate to tell you that the older you get the harder you have to work.”

So two hours before the game Wakefield sat in a small room behind the Boston dugout. A row of laptops were set up on a table. He leaned in a chair studying the screen on one of the computers, watching video of himself pitching against Yankees hitters. He watched on a screen split into quadrants: one showing the traditional center field view, one from the side, another from high above home plate. The room was cramped. It was hot. But Wakefield didn’t move. He just sat and stared.

“You know he’s in Cy Young and Roger Clemens territory,” Francona said.

No exaggeration. The major league’s active leader in victories is 10 behind Young and Clemens for the most ever by a Red Sox pitcher. Think about that. Young and Clemens are two of the most revered pitchers ever; one has his own award, the other his own indictment.

Tim Wakefield is just a middle-aged guy trying to get by throwing a pitch that has a mind of its own.

And he keeps fooling them just enough to keep going, win after win.

Les Carpenter is a feature writer and columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Les a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Jun 9, 2011