Thursday, October 1, 2009

Is this it for Tim Wakefield?

It's been all downhill for Tim Wakefield since his first selection to the All-Star Game in July. Photo from this site.

BOSTON--Asked in his pregame press conference Wednesday what he would like to see out of Tim Wakefield later in the evening, Terry Francona said he hoped Wakefield could simply pitch—or some variation thereof—four times.

“I think the biggest thing we hope is that he can pitch—kind of pitch and not limp and not have [other issues],” Francona said. “He can pitch. That’s the biggest thing. There are no guarantees what the knuckleball’s going to do or [if] they’re going to hit it, but if he can go out and pitch, that would be real good.”

It did not turn out real good for Wakefield or the Sox, and it might be time to wonder if simply pitching is no longer possible for the knuckleballer, who gave up five runs on seven hits, including three homers, in three innings as the Sox suffered a 12-0 loss to the Blue Jays.

The start was just the fourth for Wakefield since the All-Star Break, and it is almost inconceivable that he’ll make another appearance this year. Even with plenty of time between outings, Wakefield has barely been able to make it to the mound due to a nerve issue in his back that has drastically sapped the strength in his left leg.

“My left leg is about 60 percent of what my right leg is, so fatigue sets in pretty quick,” Wakefield said. “I’m not going to make excuses on my back. I’m going to go out there and give whatever I have that particular night and try to win a game. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough tonight.”

That’s been a common theme for Wakefield since a storybook first half in which he made his first All-Star Game and seemed primed to make a run at becoming the oldest first-time 20-game winner in history. Wakefield went on the disabled list July 21, and since throwing seven innings of one-run ball and earning the win in his return Aug. 16, he has lasted just six, five and three innings and recorded an 0-2 mark with an 8.36 ERA and 2.14 WHIP despite making those starts on eight days, 15 days and eight days of rest.

It was painful to watch Wakefield limp throughout a laborious 76-pitch effort last night in which he looked every bit of his 43 years, right down to a waistline that looks as if it’s expanded during his period of relative inactivity. Wakefield limped coming on and off the field and looked particularly vulnerable moving off the mound in pursuit of a bunt by John McDonald.

“I think we all saw on the bunt, trying to reverse direction, you can see how much it’s hurting him or limiting him,” Francona said. “I thought after that play he was dragging a little bit in his delivery. He’d thrown a lot of pitches. He wanted to stay in and pitch, which I respect a lot. I didn’t think it was in his best interest.”

“You’ve seen it for two months now,” Wakefield said. “It’s hard for me to obviously cover first and it’s hard for me to field my position.”

Neither Francona nor Wakefield would confirm the obvious—that Wakefield will not make the AL Division Series roster, or, one must assume, any series roster thereafter—so it wasn’t a surprise that neither pondered the possibility Wakefield may have hobbled off a mound for the last time at 7:53 p.m. after he struck out Jose Bautista.

In declining to answer a question about Wakefield’s availability for the postseason, Francona said “There’s a lot of unknowns.” But the unknowns may just be beginning for Wakefield and the Sox.

Wakefield is expected to have surgery on his back after the season, but such a procedure seems particularly delicate when performed on a 43-year-old. This is also the fourth straight season in which his second half has been marred by injury and will almost surely be the second time in three seasons he misses a chunk of the postseason. The Sox will likely pick up Wakefield’s perpetual $4 million option this fall as long as he expresses an interest in returning, but at some point, the diminishing returns will make it difficult for the club to enter spring training him penciled into a starting spot.

There are some difficult decisions on the horizon for Wakefield and the Sox. And if last night was it, it would serve as a sad yet also somewhat appropriate finale to one of the most remarkable careers in Sox history.

There was no pomp or circumstance for the perpetually stoic Wakefield, no warmup tosses in the fourth before Francona walks out to the mound to pull Wakefield and allow him to exit to a standing ovation. For a pitcher who prides himself on his reliability, versatility and accountability, even when his body is letting him down, it was just another day.

“I don’t want to give up on the team, regardless if I’m 60 percent,” Wakefield said. “I feel like I’m needed. The staff has made it clear that I’m needed to be out there and I’m going to go out there at 40 percent if I have to.”

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