They have been baseball's master illusionists of 1995, from the moment they seemingly appeared out of thin air themselves. All of a sudden there was Tim Wakefield pitching for the Boston Red Sox, back from oblivion (otherwise known as Buffalo), offering up an inviting yet whimsical knuckleball with the kind of sleepy speed that wouldn't stir a trooper on the Mass Pike. Likewise, Hideo Nomo, fresh out of Japan, showed up on the Los Angeles Dodger staff with his own sleight of hand, a fiendish forkball that bottomed out faster than a Chevy Chase talk show. From two different coasts the two of them mesmerized two different leagues with two different signature pitches but with the same M.O.: Now you see it, now you don't.
By Aug. 14 Wakefield and Nomo, both righthanders, were a combined 23-4 while only once allowing more than three earned runs over the 36 starts between them. No one else threw quite like either one, much to the further frustration of hitters. Wakefield is erect and serene, floating the ball with an economy of effort; Nomo fires it with an explosion of leg-spinning, back-bending, head-turning, arm-whipping contortionism.
The next 16 days, though, exposed the fragility of their success, as each lost command of his staple pitch. They made six combined starts in that time and gave up more than three earned runs in every one of them (32 earned runs total over 32? innings) while going 1-4.
Exposed as captives to shallow, inherently fickle repertoires, Wakefield and Nomo suddenly appeared vulnerable. Their magic, it turned out, could be as elusive as their best stuff. Now you see it, now you don't. "Nomo's been so outstanding for so long that he can't slip up without it being a federal case," protested his catcher, Mike Piazza, last week. "One thing we all go through is a slump. Unless you're Greg Maddux, it's going to happen to everybody."
Sure enough, as if by magic, the pitchers righted themselves. Nomo (10-5, 2.47 ERA, National League-high 205 strikeouts through Sunday) pitched 7? innings of two-hit, shutout ball against the New York Mets last Thursday before leaving for the second time in eight starts with a cracked nail on his right middle finger. Wakefield (15-3, American League-low 2.44 ERA) came back on Sunday and limited the California Angels to one run on four hits in eight innings.
Nomo is essentially a two-pitch pitcher: He throws a fastball and forkball. (He also throws a slow curve, though so rarely and ineffectively that hitters can disregard it.) "It's tough being a two-pitch pitcher in this league," says Piazza, "but so far he's done it." Indeed, hitters seemed to have a harder time solving Nomo the second time around. He was 3-3 with a 3.88 ERA in the 12 game in which he faced a team for the first time ant 7-2 with a 1.41 ERA in 11 follow-up games.
Wakefield has even fewer bullets in hi arsenal than Nomo. Without his good knuckleball, Wakefield's batting-practice speed fastball and modest slider are worth less. "When you're going good, people ask why don't more people throw the knuckler," says Dodger knuckleball pitcher Tom Candiotti. "When you're going the way Timmy was recently, that's when you say, 'That's why.' It's the nature of the pitch. When you get locked in, you feel like you car throw it for a strike any time you want. But when you lose it just a little bit, it's not like a fastball pitcher going from 95 miles per hour to 93. When it goes wrong, it realty goes wrong. You just lose the feeling on it, give up some hits, lose your aggressiveness, wall a lot of guys, and you're in deep trouble."
Wakefield's knuckleball is like a nervous banana-republic dictator: It never takes the same route home. He cannot spot the pitch because, he says, not even he knows how it is going to break. It works best for him when he trusts his feel for it—simply letting it fly off his fingertips unhurriedly—and worst when he tries too hard to control its location and speed.
He is virtually unbeatable when the knuckler dances through the strike zone, as evidenced by his 10-1 run with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1992 (including two playoff wins) and his 14-1 start this season. He is awful when the pitch is either flat or wild. (See 1993 and '94, when he went 14-31 overall with the Pirates and minor league teams in Zebulon, N.C., and Buffalo, eventually earning his release from the Pittsburgh organization.)
At one point this year Wakefield won 10 straight, the last of those victories coming on Aug. 13, when he came within eight outs of no-hitting the Baltimore Orioles. By then there was speculation that he might win both the American League Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards. Reporters wanted him to tell his life story over and over, about how he became a pitcher in the minors in 1989 after failing to hit enough as an infielder, about how knuckleball gurus Phil and Joe Niekro straightened him out in spring training this year, and about what it's like enduring a wild relationship—a pitcher and his disobedient knuckler—that makes a Liz Taylor marriage look positively rock solid.