On Tuesday, Tim Wakefield and his fluttering knuckleball provide the perfect opportunity to turn the tables and frustrate what has been a very potent Tribe offense this postseason. Assuming, of course, his troubling back is good to go and the famously fickle pitch obeys its master's command to dance.
When Wakefield toes the rubber at Jacobs Field in Game 4 of the ALCS, it will be the first time the pitcher has taken the mound for Boston since late September -- a month that Wakefield labored through due to nagging back pain.
"The rest has done me well," Wakefield said on Monday. "I feel ready to go."
That's great news for the Red Sox, who were forced to leave Wakefield off the AL Division Series roster after tightness in his upper back persisted. Now, after being moved back into Boston's rotation, Wakefield is the only member of the Sox to have been a part of the club's last seven postseason appearances.
That is experience that Wakefield can rely on when he squares off against Indians starter Paul Byrd, who held the Yankees in check in Game 4 of the ALDS to help Cleveland advance to the second round. Wakefield will bring his dancing knuckleball to the hill, while Byrd will present Boston with a finesse approach.
"This may be the slowest-throwing right-handed matchup of all time in the postseason," Byrd joked. "If he was a rookie, I'd say maybe there was an advantage, but he's not. Tim is a great pitcher and he's got more playoff experience than me."
In LCS play, the 41-year-old Wakefield has gone 5-1 with a 3.89 ERA for the Red Sox. The right-hander has appeared in 16 playoff contests, posting a 5-5 record with a 6.12 ERA. His outing against Cleveland will mark his first postseason start since taking on the White Sox in Game 3 of the ALDS in 2005.
That's a solid background for Wakefield to draw on, but it will all mean nothing if he runs into the back issue that dogged him over the entirety of the season's final month. Wakefield, who hasn't pitched since Sept. 29, said the stiffness in his upper back -- near his throwing shoulder -- began around the time he made a start on the road against the White Sox on Aug. 25.
He missed one turn in the rotation after the pain was too much to take, and then struggled over his final five outings of the year. Over that stretch, Wakefield went just 1-2 with a 8.76 ERA -- after leading the Majors with 11 wins over his previous 14 starts. Last week in Boston, Wakefield threw a five-inning simulated game and said there weren't any issues.
"I really don't have any concerns," Wakefield said. "The day after I pitched in Chicago, I was in a lot of pain. I tried to get ready for my next start, actually came to the park that day expecting to pitch, and that was the day I missed the start and couldn't do it.
"There's nothing structurally wrong with anything, I just think it's wear and tear. I can't pinpoint exactly what caused it to start hurting."
The bottom line is that Wakefield, who went 17-12 with a 4.76 ERA this season, isn't hurting now. Still, Boston manager Terry Francona said he'll be keeping an eye on how the right-hander looks in the early going on Tuesday night, even though it can be difficult to get a read on Wakefield and his unique style.
"Wake is the hardest," said Francona, who then paused, "I certainly don't say this disrespectfully -- he's the hardest guy to be a manager for of any pitcher I've ever been around. He's such a good pitcher and he's been good for a long time. I learned real quick, sometimes to take both your hands, put them underneath you and sit there.
"Because of the way he pitches, if you don't do that, it can drive you crazy a little bit. There's going to be stolen bases, there's going to be some walks. At the same time, if you're patient enough to let him pitch, and he's pitching well, he won 17 games, but it's very difficult."
Maybe Wakefield's style is difficult to manage, but it can also be hard to deal with for the Indians, especially after seeing the likes of Boston hurlers Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling in the first two games.
"When you get to this time of year, you have a great deal of challenges when it comes to the oppostion," Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "Surely a knuckleball pitcher takes it to the extreme. It's not something you see very much of anymore."
Wakefield hasn't pitched against the Indians since April 26, 2006, and he's 5-4 with a 4.64 ERA in 11 career games at Jacobs Field. History and injuries aside, Wakefield said he's primed for his Game 4 start.
"You know me well enough that I love the intensity," he said. "I love the competition. Again, my season is over with -- now it's the postseason. I'm anxious to pitch [Tuesday] and ready to go get 'em."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less