Tim Wakefield’s Inconsistency a Concern as Playoffs Near

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September 22, 2009

Tim Wakefield's Inconsistency a Concern as Playoffs Near

Monday night’s Red Sox series opener with the Royals brought an interesting pitching matchup. One starter, you’ll note, was a former Red Sox pitcher that many in Boston had forgotten existed.

The other was Lenny DiNardo.

OK, perhaps that’s a little harsh. But it’s hard to imagine a more precipitous fall from grace than the one Tim Wakefield has endured in the second half of 2009. And with just 14 games to go in the regular season, Wake was running out of time to prove that he could still be a contributor to the Sox the rest of the way.

In a second half that’s seen Daisuke Matsuzaka return to form and Clay Buchholz prove his worth as a major league starter, it’s easy to let the aging Wakefield slide off the radar. And as Sox fans start drafting up their dream October playoff rotations, Wakefield’s is an easy name to forget. Given his All-Star first half of the season, few expected Wakefield’s season to come to this.

But the truth is that sadly, Monday night’s start against the pitiful Royals was a big one for Wakefield. He needed to prove that he could still bring it. And the results Monday were less than encouraging.

To Wakefield’s credit, he carried a no-hitter into the fourth inning against Kansas City. But it’s undeniable how deceptive the term “no-hitter” is in a game like this. Wakefield was inconsistent, he was meandering and he couldn’t show command when he needed it most.

The third inning brought a great baseball rarity — Wakefield managed to allow a run without allowing a Kansas City hit. He walked Josh Anderson, walked Willie Bloomquist, walked Mitch Maier — and just when you thought he was going to get out of the jam, a pitch got away from Victor Martinez and plated a run.

That was the story of Wakefield’s night: He couldn’t get a big out when he needed it. When he needed a strikeout in the fourth with one out and Miguel Olivo on third, he couldn’t come through, giving up back-to-back singles. He needed an out in the fifth, too, when two more walks put runners on first and second with one out — but he coughed up a three-run blast to right from Mike Jacobs.

Wake’s final stat line: five innings, five runs (four earned), five hits, two strikeouts.

And seven walks.

These are the Royals. If he can’t get it done now, how can the Red Sox trust him against the Angels or the Yankees in October?

This is baseball, a sport in which you always hate to jump to grandiose conclusions over small samples of a player’s numbers. But in September, a small sample of Tim Wakefield is all we get. It’s sad but true — he needs a strong September to prove that he’s healthy and ready to contribute in the postseason. And after Monday night, he’s running out of time.

The Red Sox have a lot of tough decisions to make. Jon Lester is one of the hottest pitchers in baseball, and as the Sox’ longtime ace, Josh Beckett is guaranteed a spot in the October rotation as well. But after that, the rest of the gang has a lot to fight for. Buchholz has been superb in his last five starts and appears ready for the next step. Matsuzaka is himself fresh off the disabled list, but so far, so good.

Where does this leave Wakefield? If the Sox turn to a three-man rotation, “Buch” is the clear favorite to take over the third spot. If they opt for four, Dice-K appears to have the inside track. Wakefield might be relegated to being the mop-up guy in the event that a starter gets knocked out in the third inning of a playoff game. At this point, he should be happy to settle for that role.

Two months ago, nobody expected this from Tim Wakefield. But two months was plenty of time to derail Wakefield’s dream season.

Now the question is whether two weeks is enough time to get it back.

If Wake wants to salvage his status with the Red Sox in time for the postseason, he had better have two good starts in him. He didn’t come all this way just to pitch one game for the Red Sox in Kansas City in September — he wants to be a big-game contributor.

And if he’s going to get that role, he had better earn it. Sooner rather than later.

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