Wakefield’s Health Comes Before Pennant Race

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As the song goes, it's one, two, three shots, you're out.

Or something like that.

The latest news on Tim Wakefield is more than a little bit alarming. The 43-year-old Red Sox hurler was given his third cortisone shot of the 2009 season on Thursday, as the Sox try desperately to get their All-Star back to peak condition in time for late September and October.

This is the part of the season that matters most. All along, the Red Sox' goal was to play for a trip to the World Series — Boston expects rings, and no one around New England likes falling short of expectations. Wakefield's brilliant first half of 2009 was a thrill to watch, but it means nothing if he can't follow it up with some strong crunch-time innings.

But if you listen to the word coming out of the Red Sox' clubhouse, it doesn't sound encouraging.

"If he can?t do it or if he?s throwing and it seems to go backward, yeah, we wouldn?t pitch him," manager Terry Francona told The Boston Globe on Thursday. "This is just a target, and we can always change that if we?re supposed to or we need to."

In other words, the Red Sox have no idea when he will pitch again.

Francona has already scratched Wake from his scheduled start this weekend against Tampa Bay. We won't see him early next week, either, when the Red Sox take on the Angels in a series with huge playoff implications. The best-case scenario, realistically, is to see Wakefield in action a week from now when the Red Sox play the Orioles next weekend.

Or is it?

What's the best approach for Wakefield, in the long run? Isn't that what's really important?

No one wants to see a beloved member of the Red Sox family overextend himself and blow out his arm to face the Orioles in September. This is a pennant race, and every win is important, but the health of a treasured 17-year-veteran is more important. Ultimately, this is about Tim Wakefield.

We would all love to see a healthy Wakefield on the mound in October, pitching on the game's biggest stage and carrying the Red Sox back to the World Series. But if that can't happen, there's a bigger picture worth seeing.

Even at 43, he's got a career ahead of him. He's a knuckleballer, which isn't very taxing on the arm — he could pitch until he's 48 if he wanted to. And if he did, it would be with the Red Sox, the franchise he's been loyal to for a decade and a half.

The Red Sox can survive September without Wakefield. They have Josh Beckett ready to bounce back, Jon Lester dominating, Clay Buchholz ready for the big time and Daisuke Matsuzaka cruising back to the major leagues. They have live arms that can, if need be, keep the team afloat in Wake's absence.

In the meantime, it's good to see that the Red Sox have a plan.

"Probably gets his activity limited for a couple days," Francona told the Globe, "and then do as much throwing and side work [as he can] — and again, trying to balance that to where he can pitch effectively and not throw his physical part of it backward. But the plan is for him to get another shot."

That sounds fair. The Red Sox want to have him back, but only if it's a forward step in his return to peak condition. That's the goal — a healthy Wakefield, one that can keep pitching in a Red Sox uniform for years to come.

And if he can pitch in October, too, then that's a nice bonus.

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