Up from the Cellar: Why Wakefield's Triumph Was More Than Just a Win
A win is a win. We all know a win in April counts the same as in October, and that the most exciting tight game counts the same as a blow-out in the standings. But there’s such a thing, even so, as a win that’s something more…
Last Wednesday in Oakland, I found myself back in the bleachers of Oakland Coliseum for the third time that week. I’d been there Monday, to watch Lester struggle badly for the second time in as many starts.
I’d been there Tuesday, when Dice-K made it only one inning before being pulled, and my hands still hadn’t quite thawed from that chilly, twelve inning wind-blown loss. And I was thinking how I must personally be a first-rate jinx, having seen so many Sox implosions here in person, over the years, and…And then Tim Wakefield began to pitch.
One perfect inning.
Then another, and another…
Seven innings and part of the eighth passed before the A’s got so much as a walk from Wake. And even when the no-hit bid was spoiled, that performance remained awe-inspiring.
It was just one game among 162, but no one who was watching Wednesday, either on TV or there at Oakland Coliseum, could mistake that game for “just another Red Sox Win.”
It’s still too early, of course, to point to any single “turning point,” but in the three games since Wake’s complete game gem, the Red Sox have played like they’ve remembered who they are, a team with no business in the basement (unless it’s to pick out October Champagne).
Starting the season, the team had played as if half-asleep.
Since Wednesday, though, bats have come alive. The bullpen has remained heroic. Sox starting pitching is beginning to look more like one of baseball’s best rotations, and less like a liability. And in the games since last Wednesday, the Sox have gone from a .333 winning percentage, to .500.
We’re no longer last in the AL East.
A beautiful turn, no? But it wasn’t just that.
With Lowrie joining Lugo on the DL, Nick Green stepped up to make some of the great defensive plays of that game, and it was his glove work that kept the no-hitter going as long as it did. What can be more encouraging than roster depth so effective that the backup backup shortstop comes through as a stand-out?
(A few days later, he’s still hitting well too, and his double gave the Sox the first run of today’s game). If Lowrie does need surgery on his wrist, Nick Green’s unlikely heroics could take on another whole level of importance.
Kottaras caught Wake for just the second time Wednesday, and the job he did was stellar. If this was a sign of things to come, it just may be that Kottaras has that zen-like knack for catching the uncatchable, and Wake couldn’t have looked any more comfortable with his new batterymate.
And for Wake himself?
There have been a lot of doubts voiced by the fans about Wake’s future. It’s odd that there would be, since Wake just came off a terrific season in ‘08, with his lowest ERA in five years and a win count that hit double digits in spite of the depressing lack of run support that plagued him much of the year.
Some worried because Wake seemed rusty all spring, but this is Tim Wakefield. After 15 years, we ought to have grasped that with Wake, the link between any one start and the next is exactly nil, and the prediction value of his spring is about the same.
What Wednesday showed for Wake is that at 42, his knuckleball still knuckles, and beautifully. Whether or not we see it any given day, he’s just proved it’s still there, good as ever.
There’s one thing more, though, and maybe this is why that day seems already like a turning point, like a game that reminded the team what they are capable of, and reminded them what “giving your all” looks like:
When it came time for Wakefield’s second start, the Sox were getting desperate for a win. The bullpen had been drained utterly in the previous night’s debacle, having to cover 11 more innings after Matsuzaka was pulled.
Wakefield knew a strong performance was badly needed, but even more than that, the team was desperate for deep innings from the starter.
Before the game, Wakefield told Tito and Co., “Don’t take me out, no matter what.”
Don’t take me out, no matter what!
He couldn’t know this would be among the best performances of his career. He couldn’t know he’d be so efficient, so on-target all night, that just 67 pitches would take him through his first seven innings, and that two innings more would seem almost a piece of cake.
He just knew what was needed.
Wakefield is in his 15th year with the Sox. He’s the guy who signed a lifetime contract with his team, a perpetual option, at the “home town discount.”
Some players earn a place in Red Sox lore through grand, eye-catching heroics, but Wake has earned his place just by quietly doing whatever it was that was needed, whatever was asked, and by always giving it his all.
Pitching out of the bullpen in a playoff game? Sure, when that was what was needed. And though an ordinary April game in Oakland feels a lot less epic, this was still a heroic feat, Wakefield Style.
The team was skidding badly before it even got started, and the bullpen was utterly drained.
Wakefield said, “Don’t take me out,” and went on to pitch a near no-hitter, a complete game, one of the best performances of his long career, because that was exactly what was needed.
Maybe, six months from now, we’ll look back on that game as the moment that set the whole season on its track, that woke up a skidding team and lit the fire. Or maybe we’ll forget it entirely, leaving the memory buried under all those other dramas that stand between now and October.
But whatever comes next, remembered or no, that start was heroic. That game was much much more than just a win.
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