Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

BOSTON - OCTOBER 16: Pitcher Tim Wakefield #49 of the Boston Red Sox throws a pitch against the New York Yankees after entering the game in the fourth inning during game three of the American League Championship Series on October 16, 2004 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Everyone remembers what he did for the Red Sox during the 2004 playoffs, but one of the games that truly defined Wakefield took place during the dog days of 1996.

For nostalgia’s sake, of course, Wakefield taking the bullet during the Sox’ 19-8 loss to the New York Yankees in Game 3 of the 2004 American League Championship Series is the spotlight moment, the Red Sox needing someone to absorb the beating so that they could reset their pitching staff for a historic comeback and World Series championship. No one should ever dispute that. But making a sacrifice at a time when the stakes were highest is, in some ways, more easily understood and accepted because of the potential consequences.

But on July 10, 1996, the enormously disappointing Red Sox were 24-36 when they took the field for a meeting with the White Sox on the south side of Chicago. The Sox were coming off an 11-8 defeat in which they had used five pitchers, and they had lost two straight and 5-of-7. A worn down pitching staff was gasping for air when manager Kevin Kennedy handed the ball to Wakefield, who subsequently allowed the White Sox to score runs in each of the first four innings.

The knuckleball could be unreliable like that.

There were nights when it just wouldn’t cooperate.

Somewhere during that early onslaught, Kennedy – and not the pitching coach – visited Wakefield on the mound for a heartfelt message: I need you to stay out here. After winning the 1995 American League East in surprising fashion – mostly behind the brilliance of Wakefield – the 1996 Red Sox got off to wretched 3-15 start and still had not recovered. Wakefield’s magic, in particular, was gone. The Red Sox were still spinning their wheels by the time they got to Chicago and Kennedy needed Wakefield to sacrifice himself so that the team could try to get some footing.

As would become relatively common over the course of his career, Wakefield gave Kennedy a nod and stayed in the game. He pitched a complete game in an 8-2 Red Sox defeat that felt more like 18-2, and his pitching line was one for the ages: eight innings, 16 hits, eight runs, six earned runs, three walks, zero strikeouts, one home run, 158 pitches and 103 strikes. The pitch total was the third-highest of Wakefield’s career and one of the 34 times during his career that he threw 120 or more pitches in a game. (Wakefield threw 100 or more pitches in 211 career regular season games.)

After the defeat, Wakefield was 4-6 with a 5.80 ERA. He bottomed out about a month later, when he actually recorded a win over the Yankees during which he allowed six runs and 13 hits in an 8-6 victory at Fenway Park that left him with a 6.45 ERA more than halfway through the season.

From that point forward, Wakefield went 10-4 with a 3.83 ERA in his final 14 starts and finished the season with a 14-13 record and 5.14 ERA.

In that way, the entire season was a crystallization of his career: Wakefield made every start; the Red Sox went 18-14 in his 32 outings. He sacrificed. He endured the highs and lows, dips and turns of the knuckleball.

And he showed up five days later prepared to do it all again.

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