Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Thursday, April 27, 2006

IN THE WAKE OF THE KNUCKLE BALL

It was another tough start for Tim Wakefield last night. The first two Cleveland batters he faced reached base, and the third, Jhonny Peralta, scorched a three run homer into the left field seats for an early lead.

Through 5 2/3 innings, Wakefield only surrendered five hits, but his erratic knuckler resulted in four walks, and gave catcher Josh Bard fits.

Bard "allowed" four more passed balls last night, and now has ten on the season. That's more than his first four seasons combined. Two of those "passed balls" resulted in runs scored. A passed ball credited to Bard's could just as easily be viewed as a wild pitch by Wakefield. Wakefield leads all active Major League pitchers in passed balls. And it's no wonder; the knuckle ball is clearly the most difficult pitch to handle. When one of those floaters sails to the backstop, it's more often Wakefield's fault than the catcher's. Attempting to catch Wakefield's knuckle ball is a thankless task -- one so difficult that John Flaherty decided to retire after a single spring training game, rather than compete for the job and accept the frustration that comes with it.

With the loss, Wakefield is now 1-4 with a 3.90 ERA. Some would argue that the lack of run support by the offense has been his Achilles heel. After all, In his first two losses, against Texas and Seattle, the offense afforded him no runs. In his next two losses, they spotted him just a single run in each game. His only victory this season came against Baltimore, on a night when his teammates staked him a four run cushion. Wakefield's losses have been by scores of 10-4, 3-0, 5-1, and 7-1. Yes, there has been a lack of run support, but the numbers indicate that there's also been a lack of pitching as well. In those four games, the Sox have given up a total of 25 runs. That's ridiculous. That means the offense would have to average more than six runs a game to win. Not likely with this year's squad.

There's a reasonable argument that Wakefield has been placed too high in the pitching rotation at number two, and is facing pitchers above his caliber. If he moved down to, perhaps, four or five, he'd be facing weaker pitchers who would likely give up more runs. That would keep him in games. The only way Wakefield is going to win in the number two spot is if he can manage to surrender just one or two runs each outing. That isn't likely.

Wakefield has been a good soldier for the Red Sox over the course of his 12 years in Boston. He's been an exemplary representative of the organization both on and off the field. He never gets into trouble, and he doesn't complain or mouth off to the media, the fans, the management, or his teammates. He's selflessly done whatever has been asked of him, from starting, pitching middle relief, and even closing games.

The veteran righty is second on the club's all-time wins list, behind Roger Clemens and Cy Young -- who are tied for first. He's also second in games, and third in strike outs. But here's the rub; he's also first in losses, first in home runs allowed (by a long shot), and has yielded more runs and earned runs than any other pitcher in team history (again, by a long shot). And by the end of this season, he will be the club's all-time leader in walks allowed.

For all his accomplishments, Wakefield's career has been marked by mediocrity on the mound, and his place in the club's record books is a measure of his longevity, not his greatness. That's not a knock on Wakefield. That's just the truth.

Great pitchers are hard to come by, and a number two pitcher should be great - like, perhaps, Josh Beckett. This year, in that spot, Wakefield has been given the unenviable responsibility of going up against pitchers who are simply better than him, and he and the team are suffering for it. It's been just as thankless a task for him as catching the knuckle ball has been for poor Josh Bard.

Trading Bronson Arroyo now appears to be a critical mistake. Wouldn't he be a fantastic number three starter behind Beckett? David Wells is likely done, the victim of his own compulsive eating habits and lack of serious conditioning, as much as anything else. His nearly 43-year-old knees can no longer support his enormous girth. And Lenny Dinardo, for all of his well-intentioned efforts, is clearly in over his head. Maybe Abe Alvarez can dutifully fill out the final spot in the rotation while the Sox hope and pray they can persuade Roger Clemens to come back to Boston for one more stab at World Series glory.

Maybe then Tim Wakefield could assume a more fitting role as the fourth or fifth starter - against appropriate competition. And perhaps, with a little more time and practice by Bard, the knuckle ball will frustrate opposing hitters more than it has frustrated him in the early part of this season. If not, the Sox will seek an alternative catcher, but the passed balls and wild pitches will inevitably continue. Expect it.

Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

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