Rivalry spurred Zink to career year

Rivalry spurred Zink to career year

Charlie Zink had much to be grateful for this season. He posted a career high in victories, made his Major League debut and put up the second-best ERA in the International League.

He also had David Pauley as a teammate, a fact that was also near the top of that list. Zink had a marvelous season for Pawtucket, winning 14 games while posting a 2.84 ERA. The veteran knuckleballer is proud of the numbers -- the ERA was the second lowest of his seven-year career -- but he's quick to point out that without Pauley, it might not have been possible.

Pauley has not only been Zink's roommate for the past three years, he also won 14 games for the PawSox. The two jousted and jabbed their way through the season, pushing each other while leading the PawSox to an International League playoff berth. Zink was rewarded for his effort with the MiLBY as Triple-A Starting Pitcher of the Year. But he said Pauley deserves nearly as much of the credit.

"This season seemed to go by so fast," said Zink, who won at least 10 games in a season for the fifth time in his career. "It was just a breath of fresh air. David and I kept going back and forth, trying to outdo each other. It was a nice little competition and made us work harder. Because of that, I think the season went by faster for me than any other one has.

"Every five days was coming faster and faster because we were pushing each other. It was great. I'd be ahead one game or he'd be ahead one game. We always pushed each other and we always wanted the other one to be good. It was great to go out there and pull for someone. It made it a very easy year."

Zink got hammered in his first start of the season, allowing six runs against Indianapolis. But he reeled off 11 wins in his next 12 decisions, a 19-start stretch that saw him allow one earned run or fewer 14 times. Zink lost his second game of the season on May 5, then went more than two months before suffering another setback.

That dominating early run was a big reason why his ERA was 1.2 runs lower than his career mark of 4.05.

"For me, I've always been told that, as a knuckleballer, a good ERA would be around 4.00, a low-four ERA," Zink said. "For some reason, I just believed that. I never thought to push it and try and have it lower. This year, though, I somehow said, 'Why settle for that? I'm going to try and get it down and focus on it.'

"I was in the twos [most games] after that first start. I wanted to keep it there. That was one of my big goals, that and getting more wins than I ever had. It was really Pauley and me pushing each other back and forth. It was fun to go out there like that."

It also resulted in Zink getting the opportunity to make his Major League debut on Aug. 12 at Fenway Park. He didn't fare as well as he would have liked -- he allowed eight runs on 11 hits in 4 1/3 innings but didn't figure in the decision as the Red Sox beat Texas, 19-17. But for someone who played his college ball at Savannah College of Art and Design and went undrafted, that day proved to be one of the highlights, not only of Zink's career but his life.

"It was more than I ever could have imagined," Zink said. "Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I'd be pitching at Fenway Park in front of everyone -- my mom, my friends. I still don't know how to describe it. It was surreal being at Fenway. But the journey was worth it. It's been my dream ever since I was a kid."

Zink is on the 40-man roster now but has a pair of options remaining, so odds are he'll be on the fringe of returning to Fenway for quite some time. Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who turned 42 in August, has been a staple on the Boston staff for more than a dozen years. He's also been a friend and mentor to Zink.

While it would seem logical to the casual observer that the Red Sox place a premium on what Wakefield can do, Zink didn't make the connection until Boston called him up this season.

"When they called me up, it finally opened my eyes that they have value in me," Zink said. "I had been putting up fairly good numbers and had not gotten any feedback. I was always right at the top of the organization in wins the last four or five years. You would think someone would notice.

"When I finally got the acknowledgement, that was huge for me. It told me they are watching and they do care about what and how I am doing. I have no problem waiting here if they ever need me to fill in for Wakefield."

If that ever happens, he'll probably want to bring Pauley along for the ride.

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