The attention is largely unwanted by Wakefield. "It's definitely been hard to keep my focus," he says. "I like to please people, but I realize I'm not getting paid to answer questions or sign autographs. And if my concentration is not fully there, then I'm out of a job next year. I had a great 10-game streak when I was locked in and could do what I wanted to do. That's gone."
Wakefield's magical run ended in Seattle on Aug. 18, when the Mariners, who had squeezed one unearned run off him in 10 innings back in June, blasted him for seven runs in three innings. They waited for him to get his knuckleball over the plate, and he couldn't do it. The Mariners swung at only five of his first 44 pitches. Third baseman Mike Blowers crushed a grand slam and a three-run homer.
"The key is to be patient with him," says Blowers, "and when he does come in with a fastball, to take advantage of it. The other thing is, it seems like his good knuckleball starts at about the belt and breaks down out of the strike zone. The ones that are up don't move as much. So you want him to get the knuckleball up."
The loss in Seattle began a three-start slump in which Wakefield went 0-2 with a 9.56 ERA while averaging 7.9 walks per nine innings, about triple his previous rate. Hitters clearly had learned to be patient with the knuckler—through Sunday they were hitting .309 off him when they got to three-ball counts, .209 when they didn't—though, as Red Sox manager Kevin Kennedy says, "if he throws it for a strike, as he did earlier in the season, it doesn't matter."
Nomo, on the other hand, was slowed by a stiff elbow, an-aftereffect of throwing 120 pitches in a one-hitter against the San Francisco Giants on the cool, windy night of Aug. 5. Los Angeles pitching coach Dave Wallace says the stiffness lasted "only one or two starts," but Nomo went 1-3 with a 6.20 ERA over the next four. That stretch included the worst of his 23 starts, a three-inning, seven-run disaster in a 17-4 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.
"Our club started swinging early in the count against the fastball," says Philadelphia coach Larry Bowa. "If he's not getting the forkball over, it doesn't matter how hard he throws, because these guys are going to hit fastballs. And now we're in the second half of the season, and the fatigue factor might be coming into play. Your arm can only throw so many pitches. And the more fork-balls you throw, it takes away from your fastball. It's a strain on your elbow. This guy throws a lot of forkballs, so we'll see."
Says one National League general manager, "He's not popping his fastball like he did early in the season." Nomo has averaged 110 pitches each time out and already has thrown 46? more innings than he did last year, when he missed most of the second half of the Japanese Pacific League season with shoulder trouble. "I think he is a little tired," Piazza says, "but he says he's not."
Nomo actually throws two kinds of forkballs, which differ by as much as 8 mph: a slow version that looks like a straight changeup and a harder, "wipeout" forkball that is his strikeout pitch. "It's so good," says Met shortstop Jose Vizcaino of the latter delivery, "a lot of times you know it's coming, and you still can't hit it. So you have to look for fastballs early in the count."
Even though hitters have learned to sniff out fastballs from Nomo and are less baffled by his funky delivery—"The first time I faced him, all I did was try to figure out where his release point was," says New York first baseman Rico Brogna—the league is hardly catching up to him. For example, Nomo dominated Met hitters last Thursday when he faced them for a fourth time. Pitching on his 27th birthday, he permitted only two singles and struck out 11. "Any questions now?" Wallace proudly asked after the game.
That outing underscored the importance of his forkball. Nomo overwhelmed New York despite flipping "only a couple" of curveballs, Piazza says, and a fastball that reached 90 mph just twice and dipped as low as 82 mph in the seventh inning. Nomo left the following inning when the nail on his finger cracked, an injury caused by the pressure on his finger when he throws his fastball. "Did you see it? It's ugly," Piazza says. "It's broken almost all the way down to the cuticle."