Red Sox ride Wakefield to sweep
Backed by six-run third, knuckleballer produces quality start
DETROIT -- At 42 years old, Red Sox right-hander Tim Wakefield hardly pitches like someone in the final stages of his career. And who's to say that he is?
On a day like Thursday afternoon, when Wakefield stymied the Tigers by a score of 6-3 to notch his team-leading seventh victory, he gave the impression that he could make hitters wave weakly at his knuckleball for, oh, about another decade.
"He throws strikes and that knuckleball is really good. He can pitch as long as he wants to," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "He throws strikes. That thing is hard to hit. I don't think people realize how hard it is to hit a knuckleball."
Especially the way Wakefield throws it. His ability to right himself in mid-start was of big benefit to the Red Sox on Thursday afternoon.
Wakefield gave up three runs in the second, putting Boston in a quick 3-0 hole. But the right-hander frustrated the Tigers for the rest of the day. Over 6 2/3 innings, Wakefield scattered eight hits and three runs, walking none and striking out three. He threw 80 pitches.
"It's important, especially after we go and score six in the top of the third," said Wakefield. "I've got to go out there and give them a shutout inning, and I was able to do that 1-2-3 and get our offense in the dugout and try to score more runs. After that, I felt very comfortable. The weather was cool today, it was nice. I was able to only throw 80 pitches through 6 2/3. I was very efficient today, and hopefully I can keep it going."
All in all, it was a successful finale of a 10-game road trip. Aside from producing a three-game sweep against the Tigers, who are in first place in the American League Central, the Red Sox finished their lengthy journey with a 6-4 mark.
Though that record is hardly spectacular, it goes down as the best road trip the Sox -- 15-16 away from Fenway Park -- have had this season. And after splitting four games at Minnesota and losing two out of three in Toronto, it was the best result possible. The win allowed Boston to go home tied with the Yankees for first place in the AL East.
"Minnesota seems like it was so long ago and it was," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "Today was a hard game to win. You've won two here, they haven't gone to the two guys in their bullpen, [Joel] Zumaya and [Fernando] Rodney. But again, we played a pretty good game. Showing up with some energy on a day game after a night game is good."
And whatever energy the Tigers had, Wakefield sapped.
It was Wakefield's 16th career win against the Tigers, the most of any active pitcher. More important for the 2009 Red Sox, it was Wakefield's seventh quality start, placing him one behind ace Josh Beckett for the team lead.
Wakefield now has 185 career victories, 171 of them for the Red Sox.
"He's been a blessing for us," said Francona. "And when I say the last two years, this goes way past that. But you look at his numbers from the regular season the last couple of years, he probably ranks second on our staff in a lot of categories -- wins, innings. He's a good pitcher. Maybe a little unconventional, but that's OK -- it doesn't matter."
Of course, Wakefield (7-3) has some inches to thank for this being a quality start.
In the bottom of the sixth, Jeff Larish hammered what narrowly missed being a two-run homer down the line in right. It was so close that umpires utilized instant replay, but kept the original call of a foul ball.
That marked the third time the Red Sox (32-22) have been involved in a homer that was reviewed, and the first time the call went in their favor.
Offensively, it was a strange day for the Red Sox. They put together a six-run rally in the third inning that only included two hits. For this, they could thank the wildness of Tigers left-hander Dontrelle Willis.
"I don't know if I would call it an attack," Francona said. "We knew that we wanted to swing at strikes."
Willis (1-3) didn't offer many of those. The inning started with Willis hitting Jacoby Ellsbury and spiraled downward rapidly from there. Willis walked Julio Lugo and Pedroia to load the bases, and then walked J.D. Drew and Kevin Youkilis to force home two runs. Youkilis later left the game as a precaution with a tight right calf.
Jason Bay gave the Red Sox the lead for good, softly placing a two-run double down the line in left. Rocco Baldelli got another run home with an RBI single. Willis left with a bizarre stat line (2 1/3 innings, no hits, five runs, five walks, three strikeouts).
"We walked a lot," said Pedroia. "I think that was the biggest thing. A lot of guys took a patient approach. Jason Bay had a big hit for us."
And with the Tigers (28-24) still hanging around in the bottom of the ninth, Pedroia came up with a big play. Closer Jonathan Papelbon opened the ninth by walking Larish. Curtis Granderson then hit a bullet up the middle that Pedroia made a brilliant stab on, throwing to Lugo for the force. Brandon Inge then hit a single to left-center, but Papelbon took care of business from there.
If not for the play by Pedroia, it could have been a sour flight home.
"That was a very big play," said Francona. "As opposed to having nobody out and two men on, tying run at the plate, we get the force. That was a huge play. He has that ability. We've seen it over and over."
Of course, the same could be said about Wakefield.
"He's a competitor and loves to be out there," said catcher George Kottaras.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.