One Wakefield mistake proves costly

One Wakefield mistake proves costly

NEW YORK -- Randy Johnson and Mariano Rivera are both likely to have plaques in Cooperstown some day. Unfortunately for the Red Sox on Sunday afternoon, they both showed why.

Veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield certainly deserved a better fate, pitching perhaps his best game of the season -- not to mention one of the best of his career -- and notching his second complete game in as many starts. But the Boston bats had no answers for Johnson -- compiling just three hits in a 1-0 loss to the Yankees -- and a ninth-inning rally against Rivera fell short.

It was a crisp, tense game on a picture-perfect day, and the epitome of September baseball at its best. The only thing wrong for the Red Sox was the end result.

"There was a lot of excitement. I'm sure it was a great game to watch," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "It was a great game to be a part of. It's two really good teams giving everything they have, and one pitch, one play can determine the game."

The Yankees took two out of three from the Red Sox, slicing Boston's lead in the American League East to three games. Wakefield did everything in his power to stretch the lead to five games, but Johnson and Rivera wouldn't allow it.

"[Wakefield] was so good, and he had to be," Francona said. "I know that their guy and our guy is one extreme to the other, but he almost matched him pitch for pitch. That ball hooks a little bit down the right-field line and we might still be playing. He was great."

The ball Francona spoke of was one that Jason Giambi just sort of lofted down the right-field line for a homer that grazed the foul pole. That long ball off a curveball from Wakefield came with two outs in the bottom of the first, and who could have known it would stand up for the rest of the day?

"You think about the outcome of the game, you don't think that a ball that barely nicks the foul pole is gonna beat you," Wakefield said. "Randy pitched unbelievably today. Unfortunately, we drew the short end of the stick there."

Wakefield did everything he could, registering a career-high 12 strikeouts over eight innings, while allowing just three hits.

Typically, the Red Sox made things plenty dramatic over the last two innings. Johnson came out after seven epic innings in which he held Boston to one hit while striking out eight.

Tom Gordon was the first one out of the bullpen, and Tony Graffanino greeted him with a single. The Red Sox sent speedster Adam Stern in to pinch-run, but that move was nullified when Doug Mirabelli's popup fell near the mound, in between a collection of Yankees infielders. Alex Rodriguez picked it up on a bounce and threw to second for the force on Stern. After Bill Mueller flew out to left, the dangerous David Ortiz (who didn't start because of back tightness) pinch-hit for Gabe Kapler. Not taking any chances, Yankees manager Joe Torre went to his best, calling on Rivera.

Ortiz worked the count to 3-2 and then walked. Up stepped Johnny Damon, who worked a 10-pitch at-bat, but wound up grounding to first, allowing the Yankees to emerge unscathed.

For a moment, Damon thought he had delivered, as he sprayed a drive down the line in right that hit the base off the wall in foul territory.

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"I thought I stayed inside the ball enough. But as soon as it lost steam, that's when it blew foul," said Damon. "It was close. It was something we could have used. I think Alex [Cora] would have scored from first on that. Unfortunately, it didn't work."

Naturally, Damon broke his bat on the groundout.

"He always breaks my bats," said Damon. "I just had to battle. That's why he's the best closer, at least over the last 10 years. He didn't miss a pitch. He was right on that corner, give or take the size of a baseball. The guy is good. I battled. I was close, but close just isn't good enough."

Close was again the theme in the top of the ninth. Edgar Renteria scorched one back to the box, only to have Rivera snare it for out No. 1. With two outs and nobody on, Manny Ramirez (walk) and Kevin Millar (single) staged a rally, and Francona sent sweet-swinging John Olerud to the plate to pinch-hit for Alejandro Machado.

Olerud worked the count to 2-2, but fanned on a rising -- what else? -- cutter. It was Rivera's 37th pitch of the day.

"I'm looking for a good pitch to hit, something that he'll leave over the plate. He just did a good job pitching to me," said Olerud. "His cutter was still alive and jumping out of his hand."

The Yankees didn't feel any sympathy for the Boston hitters. Not on a day Wakefield left them flustered and helpless.

"Wakefield was probably as good as I've seen him," said Derek Jeter, who has seen him plenty. "His ball was moving all over the place. We could have been out there for another three hours and I don't think we'd have gotten any more hits off him."

There were no arguments from other corners of the clubhouse.

"His ball was cutting, sinking, going up and down," said Alex Rodriguez. "He had it all working today. Usually, I see him pretty good, but he had us all talking to each other."

Only Mirabelli had a task as tough as the one faced by the New York hitters.

"His ball was darting in, it was darting away," Mirabelli said. "It was effectively wild in the strike zone. I had a tough time today catching the ball. I hadn't had a game like that where I felt like I was going to have a hard time catching the ball."

In the end, Wakefield knew he couldn't have pitched any better. And if Johnson did, it was only by the slightest of margins.

"It just goes to show you you don't have to throw 95 mph to get guys out," Wakefield said. "The whole objective is to get outs, no matter how you do it."

The Red Sox and Yankees meet again on Sept. 30, when a three-game series to close the regular season kicks off at Fenway Park.

"We're three games up," Damon said. "We know this isn't going to be over any time soon. All we can do is go out and play to win, and hopefully the Yankees lose some games before they come see us."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.