Wakefield throws one mean pitch
BOSTON — Orlando Cabrera watched Tim Wakefield's knuckleball weave through the air.
It fluttered slowly to the left, then right, then left again — all on a single pitch. Cabrera held only a baseball bat when he could have used a butterfly net.
"I look at him and just smile," Oakland's shortstop and Wakefield's teammate on Boston's 2004 championship team said after Wednesday night's frustration. "I'm like, 'I can't hit that. Keep throwing it. I can't hit that.' "
So many hitters have the same problem that, finally, in his 17th major league season and 15th with the Red Sox, the pitcher with the calm demeanor and quirky pitch is headed for his first All-Star game Tuesday in St. Louis.
"You go and play professional baseball and you always want to make an All-Star team," the 42-year-old Wakefield said. "I'm very excited about it."
Current and former teammates and managers are delighted.
They praised Wakefield's unselfishness and steadying influence in the clubhouse and on the mound — where he's willing to throw as long as necessary to rest an overworked bullpen. He even pitched in relief between starts in 2003 and 2004.
"I'm thrilled for him. He's been one of the great ambassadors for the game," said Detroit manager Jim Leyland, Wakefield's skipper during his brilliant rookie season with Pittsburgh in 1992. "He had a knuckleball, and he's still throwing it."
Johnny Damon, a former teammate and now an opponent with the New York Yankees: "When it's on it's almost impossible to hit. ... He's been able to call himself a two-time champion. But an All-Star is something as a player you always want people to notice."
Joe Kerrigan, Wakefield's former pitching coach and manager, and the current pitching coach for Pittsburgh: "I think it was long overdue. ... He has really defined the art of the knuckleball."
Very few pitchers throw it, either in the majors or minors.
Minnesota's R.A. Dickey is one of them and feels Wakefield's All-Star status helps knuckleballers by bringing "some legitimacy to what we do.
"It's more than just a circus pitch. It's a pitch that can really have good results if thrown correctly and he's done it for a long time," Dickey said. "Who is to say he can't throw for three or four more years just as successful? The pitch allows you to do that."
On Wednesday, Wakefield became the AL's winningest pitcher so far this season, improving to 11-3 with a 4.31 ERA after a 5-4 win in which Cabrera struck out twice.
Wakefield also climbed on the Red Sox career lists. He leads the club with 394 starts, two more than Roger Clemens. His 175 wins are second to Clemens' and Cy Young's 192. He's second with 1,858 strikeouts to Clemens' 2,590.
But he's also first in losses and walks.
All those numbers come with longevity and he wants to stay with the Red Sox as long as they want him.
After going 16-12 with a 4.15 ERA in 2005, Wakefield shunned free agency for a $4 million, one-year contract that gave the Red Sox the right to renew it annually at the same amount. They've done that four times already.
"He's meant so much not only to the Red Sox but to the rest of baseball," manager Terry Francona said. "He's going to be introduced in St. Louis next week and he's going to be one of the prouder guys."
Wakefield began his major league career as if he would be a fixture at All-Star games.
Called up from the minors by the Pirates on July 31, 1992, he went 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA in the regular season. Then he pitched two complete-game wins against Atlanta in the NL championship series. His Game 6 victory tied the series. John Smoltz, who pitched Game 7 for the Braves, was concerned.
"I was afraid he might pitch Game 7, that's how good he was against us," said Smoltz, now part of the same rotation as Wakefield. "I knew he could go (in that game). At least that was the fear some of us had because we had really no chance against him."
He didn't, and Atlanta won 3-2 with three runs in the ninth.
Wakefield won Pittsburgh's 1993 season opener, then struggled and was sent down. In 1994, he never reached the majors and led the American Association in losses with a 5-15 record for Buffalo.
Then, like the unpredictability of his knuckler, Wakefield resurfaced with the Red Sox. They signed him to a minor league free agent contract on April 27, 1995, and he started at Triple-A Pawtucket. A month later, he was in the majors.
He finished that season at 16-8 with a 2.95 ERA that earned him third place in the AL Cy Young balloting.
But there have been plenty of disappointments.
Wakefield was left off Boston's 1999 ALCS roster against his wishes. He gave up Aaron Boone's 2003 ALCS-clinching homer in the 11th inning of Game 7 against the New York Yankees. And he missed the 2007 World Series with a shoulder injury after going 17-12. Boston won anyway.
Last season, he was 10-11 with a 4.13 ERA but had shoulder problems toward the end.
"I really spent a long time this winter making sure I was going to stay healthy," Wakefield said.
He hasn't missed a start this year and will be rested on Tuesday for his first appearance with the best players in the game. He'll be bringing along the knuckler that left Cabrera baffled just a few days ago.
"The guy well deserved it for many years," Cabrera said, "and, finally, he got to be an All-Star."
AP Sports Writers Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis, Larry Lage in Detroit and Kristie Rieken in Houston and AP freelancer Ken Powtak in Boston contributed to this report.