A struggling former fireballer faces a resurgent knuckleballer Wednesday in a matchup between two of the oldest players in baseball, with Johnson meeting Wakefield as the Arizona Diamondbacks close their series against the Boston Red Sox.
While Johnson (4-5, 5.09 ERA) is 12 wins shy of 300 and second all-time with 4,687 strikeouts, Wakefield (4-5, 4.17) has lasted 16 seasons thanks to a slow knuckler and has a 172-151 career record.
It’s Wakefield, however, who has been showing he still has what it takes to be effective in the majors, less than six weeks shy of his 42nd birthday. The 44-year-old Johnson, meanwhile, has been far from impressive lately.
The Big Unit has lost all four of his starts this month, the most he’s lost consecutively since dropping five straight in 1999. He has a 7.77 ERA and a .324 opponent batting average in June.
“The last four games that I’ve pitched have been extremely frustrating,” said Johnson, winless since May 18. “I feel good. I’m just frustrated because in all those games it’s essentially been one inning.”
The five-time Cy Young Award winner’s latest start was his first complete game since August 2006, but he also failed to strike out more than one batter for the first time since that same month. Johnson gave up 11 hits in eight innings in a 7-2 loss at Minnesota on Friday, allowing 10 or more hits for a second consecutive start for the first time.
Johnson, though, has had good fortune at Fenway Park. He’s 8-2 there despite a 5.01 ERA in 15 career appearances, and has won four straight starts in Boston while getting tagged for 17 runs and 26 hits—including seven homers—in 25 2-3 innings.
While Johnson clearly has gotten very good run support at Fenway, Wakefield has had no such luck of late and he’s won only once in six starts. The right-hander has pitched at least seven innings in five consecutive outings, posting a 2.50 ERA while opposing batters have hit .203.
Wakefield lost to St. Louis on Friday as he gave up three earned runs in seven innings of a 5-4 defeat. Boston has scored an average of just 3.3 runs in the 15 games he’s started this year.
This will be the first career start against the Diamondbacks for Wakefield, though he did throw two hitless innings against them in a relief appearance in 2002.
The Red Sox were limited to two runs and nine hits through the first 16 innings of the series before scoring four runs in the eighth Tuesday to win 5-4. Jason Varitek entered the inning in a 1-for-30 slump before delivering the go-ahead RBI single.
“Tek’s been a little bit unlucky,” said Mike Lowell, whose two-run double tied the game at 4. “He’s hit better than just those numbers, but it always feels good for a ball to drop, especially in a big situation.”
Manny Ramirez had two hits Tuesday but failed to drive in a run for the eighth consecutive game. He’s homered five times in 42 at-bats against Johnson.
Ramirez leads Boston with 49 RBIs and Kevin Youkilis is next with 47, and the Red Sox hope he can return Wednesday. The Gold Glove first baseman has been out since getting hit in the eye by Lowell’s one-hop throw in warmups before the fifth inning Monday.
“He showed up, looked like he got beat up,” Boston manager Terry Francona said. “He’s still got some watering because of the swelling so we sent him down to the eye specialist.”
Chad Tracy homered and drove in all four runs Tuesday for Arizona, which has averaged 3.0 runs in its last 11 games while hitting .221. Stephen Drew is 6-for-38 (.158) in the last 10 games and the Diamondbacks have lost seven of them.