While Red Sox fans were elated to see ailing pitcher Roger Clemens (shoulder tendinitis) make his 1995 debut last Friday—in five innings, he was wild and did not get the decision, but threw 94 mph—they were really buzzing about Boston's latest reclamation project, knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, a converted infielder who lost command of his bread-and-butter pitch early in '93. When he continued to show nothing in spring training this year, the Pirates released him. Wakefield, 28, was signed to a minor league contract by the Red Sox on April 24, was called up to Boston a month later and responded by winning his first three starts impressively.
He beat the Angels 12-1 on May 27, allowing one run on five hits in seven innings. Then, pitching on two days' rest, he defeated the As 1-0, giving up two hits in 7⅓ innings. On Sunday he knocked off the Mariners 2-1, pitching 10 innings and limiting Seattle to six hits. His ERA at week's end was 0.37.
"This is how I am capable of pitching when the knuckleball is moving around and I'm throwing strikes," says Wakefield, who usually throws the knuckler between 55 and 60 mph. "It's been the other way for so long that I'm going to enjoy this."
Wakefield spent last season at Triple A Buffalo, where he won five games and led the American Association in losses (15), hits allowed (197), earned runs allowed (114), walks (98), hit batters (23) and home runs allowed (27). "You have to admit it's a testament to my character," Wakefield says of last season, "that I didn't come up with a hamstring pull."
Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette has always liked knuckleball pitchers because they can work often. After signing Wakefield, Duquette left him in Fort Myers, Fla., for extended spring training and to work with former major league knuckleballers Phil and Joe Niekro, now the manager and the pitching coach, respectively, for the Colorado Silver Bullet women's pro baseball team. Phil and Joe advised Wakefield to stop guiding his knuckler and to just throw it. They also suggested he vary its speed.
There's no pitch more unpredictable than the knuckleball, as Wakefield well knows, having gone 8-1 after being called up by the Pirates for the second half of the 1992 season and then suddenly falling apart early the next season. The pitch can be nearly impossible to hit one day and as hard to get an out with the next. Right now, Wakefield's knucklers—and the hearts of Boston fans—are fluttering.
A bad year for baseball got worse last Saturday, when power-hitting third basemen Dean Palmer of the Rangers and Matt Williams of the Giants went down with serious injuries. Palmer, who was ranked among the American League leaders in several offensive categories, ruptured the biceps tendon in his left elbow while swinging at a pitch. He will be out for the rest of the season. Williams, who was leading the National League in the Triple Crown categories, fouled a ball off his right foot and fractured the second metatarsal, shelving him for at least six weeks. "It's like a car crash," said San Francisco infielder Steve Scarsone, who will see a lot of playing time at third until Williams returns. "It's a lot to lose, but this team has a lot of character." The injury to Williams will undoubtedly hasten the Giants' pursuit of Kevin Mitchell, who is trying to get out of his contract with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks of Japan's Pacific League and wants to return to San Francisco, where he had an MVP season in 1989....
With Palmer's departure, the return of slugging outfielder Juan Gonzalez from a back injury (herniated disk) could not have been more timely for Texas. He played for the first time this season last Thursday night, hitting a two-run triple, sliding twice and feeling no pain after the game. Before Palmer was sidelined there had been speculation that the Rangers might consider trading Gonzalez, but they're not shopping him now—and who would take the risk of acquiring him, anyway? Not only is his back a big question mark, but he is in only the second year of a seven-year, $45 million contract. What's more, at 25 he's already working on his third divorce, and general managers would have to wonder about his stability off the field....
Mariner lefthander Randy Johnson, who had a 5-0 record, a 2.16 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 50 innings through Sunday, is one of the most talented pitchers in the American League but also one of the most disliked. Add the Yankees to the list of teams who are out to get him. On May 31 the 6'10" Johnson drilled Yankee catcher Jim Leyritz with a pitch that deflected off his wrist, struck him in the face and started a near-brawl. Watch for the rematch when the Mariners play in New York on June 9....