10/15/08 2:00 PM ET
Rays haunted by knuckler no more
Wakefield's career dominance against Tampa Bay buried
By Bryan Hoch / MLB.com
With the American League East champs now known as the Rays, the veteran knuckleballer has learned the hard way what a national audience is beginning to accept -- they're no longer the pushovers who collected mail in the AL cellar for roughly a decade. One win from the World Series, Tampa Bay has surely given Wakefield a devil of a time.
Owning a 19-3 lifetime record against Tampa Bay coming into this season, Wakefield saw the Rays make adjustments to counter the 42-year-old's predictable arsenal. In three regular-season meetings this year, Wakefield was 0-2 with a 5.87 ERA, allowing 10 runs in 15 1/3 innings.
"He's had so many good outings against Tampa, and I think this is his first year that he struggled a little bit," Red Sox catcher Kevin Cash said. "They made some adjustments, and they came up with a better approach against them. It's definitely paid off for them."
Of those three starts, Wakefield's final one against the Rays was the ugliest -- he lasted just 2 2/3 innings in a Sept. 17 start at Tropicana Field, serving up three home runs as the Rays pounded the Red Sox.
The setting was more autumnal on Tuesday, but the results didn't much change Saying his "rhythm was a little off," Wakefield served up another trio of homers and was chased to the showers in the third inning.
Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria sent Wakefield floaters over the Green Monster in the first inning for back-to-back home runs, staking the Rays to an early three-run advantage. Willy Aybar also knocked a two-run homer in the third that completed the scoring against Wakefield.
Tim Wakefield vs. Rays 1998-2007
Tim Wakefield vs. Rays in 2008
"When you have a guy like Wakefield out there, we know how nasty he can be," Pena said. "That ball's moving like crazy when he throws it. And sure enough, when I went up for my first at-bat, those first two pitches I saw moved a lot. So I was reminded even more of the fact that you have to stay small, don't try to do too much.
"And sure enough, when you do that, good things happen. I was able to get a pitch in the zone and put the barrel on it. Next thing you know, home run. And Longoria does it. Now we're up, 3-0. But to think that we went up there trying to do that is not true. We were trying to have good at-bats, just keep it simple and stick to the basics."
Looking back on the at-bats that transformed balls to unwelcome souvenirs, Cash said that Pena's pitch was actually down, but the other two home runs floated up into dangerous territory.
"When you've got a guy that is a knuckleball pitcher throwing 68 mph and the balls are up, they're going to get hit," Cash said.
Red Sox manager Terry Francona had speculated that some of the reason for Tampa Bay's recent success against Wakefield could have to do with the same qualities that led the Rays to 97 wins -- simply, they're a better team than they were before this season.
But Cash said that the Rays' approach against Wakefield has also improved.
"I personally think they're more aggressive," Cash said. "In the past, it was kind of, 'Make him throw a strike.' Now, his last couple of starts against him, they're going to go after that first pitch. It's paid off for them.
Wakefield vs. Rays in 2008
"Wake is a knuckleball pitcher, so it's easy to say, 'Mix it up.' But you're not going to throw fastballs and curveballs. If he's going to get beat, he's going to get beat with his best pitch."
Wakefield had not pitched since a Sept. 28 start against the Yankees to close out the regular season, but Cash said that rust was not a reason for the poor outing, in and of itself. Wakefield came out of his bullpen session appearing sharp and had worked on the side during the playoffs.
"I'm not going to stand here and make excuses," Wakefield said. "I prepared myself as best as I knew how and threw some sides and threw some simulated innings. I didn't have it tonight."
Yet not all of Wakefield's 44 offerings had "hit me" tattooed under Commissioner Bud Selig's signature -- as Cash said, "He threw some really good ones, but those don't show up because of the home runs."
With runners at the corners in the first inning, Wakefield got Fernando Perez to foul out, ending the frame and beginning a string of six Rays in a row retired, including a four-pitch second inning.
But the outs in the third would be Wakefield's last of the night; attempting to field a Carl Crawford dribbler, Wakefield fell on the Fenway infield and jammed his neck as the speedy Crawford reached base.
The next batter, Aybar, then launched a floater for a two-run homer over the 37-foot-high wall in left field to put Tampa Bay up, 5-0 -- the second consecutive night the Rays jumped on Boston's starter for such a lead. After a single to Dioner Navarro, Wakefield's night was complete.
"In a night that was filled with a lot of things that didn't go right," Francona said, "that was a huge turn in the game."
Perhaps some of the rust was to be expected. Although Francona said that he believed the layoff would not affect Wakefield, the manager also came prepared with a plan to use Manny Delcarmen in case it did.
As it turned out, Wakefield wrenched those plans by not completing three innings, forcing Justin Masterson, who had been warming up as early as the first inning, to trot out of the bullpen before anyone else.
The result was the shortest postseason start by a Sox pitcher since Bronson Arroyo lasted two innings in Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS, and it continued another poor trend for Wakefield. In his past four postseason starts, dating back to Game 1 of the 2004 World Series, the knuckleballer is 0-3 with a 10.47 ERA.
"It hurts," Wakefield said. "Obviously, down, 2-1, you want to even the series up as much as possible. I put us in too deep of a hole. We've been in this situation before. We've been down, 3-0, and come back and won, so it's going to take a group effort Thursday. Hopefully, we can get it done."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.