Pirates' fluttering postseason hopes rest on rookie knuckleballer Wakefield

October 09, 1992|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH -- Like a lot of little boys, the young Tim Wakefield used to wait, usually not so patiently, for his father, Steve, to come home from work, so they could head for the back yard and have a catch.

But, like a lot of fathers, Steve Wakefield was usually a bit more exhausted than Tim after a hard day's work, so the throwing and pitching sessions tended to run shorter than Tim Wakefield would have liked.

And when Steve wanted those sessions to run even shorter, he'd throw his son a knuckleball and send him scrambling.

"He would get tired and start throwing the knuckler, probably just to get me tired because I'd miss the pitch and have to run back and chase it at the fence," Wakefield said. "I think he figured I would get so tired I'd want to go inside and we could have dinner."

How times have changed. Twenty years ago, Steve Wakefield threw the knuckler to tire his son out.

Tonight, Tim Wakefield will throw the knuckler to help keep his team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, alive in the National League Championship Series.

The Pirates already trail the Atlanta Braves 2-0 in the best-of-seven series, and if Pittsburgh is to have any hope at all, Wakefield, who until 1990 was a first baseman in the Pirates organization, will have to win the biggest game of his career.

"He can pitch. He's done all right so far through this season. He should

be fine [tonight]," Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland said during yesterday's workouts.

Still, Leyland said that while he has confidence in his 26-year-old rookie, he's not altogether certain what Wakefield is doing or how he is doing it.

"I have no idea when to take him out," Leyland said. "I'll be on pins and needles."

When asked if a pitcher can control the pitch, thrown with only the fingertips on the seams to push the ball to the plate, Leyland said, "Yes. But don't ask me how it works. Not in my wildest imagination do I understand."

Wakefield, who was called up from the Buffalo Bisons, the Pirates' Triple-A farm team, on July 31, has been a godsend to the Pittsburgh rotation, which took a significant hit when starter Zane Smith went on the disabled list twice in a month.

Wakefield, who had never pitched in the major leagues, coolly stepped in, went 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA and has won his last five decisions, throwing one of baseball's most difficult pitches to master.

"It's been a tremendous ride for me, first of all, being converted from an infielder to a pitcher and then amazingly being given a second chance," Wakefield said.

Wakefield was a highly touted first-base prospect from little-known Florida Tech. He was the first player drafted from that 5,000-student school and still holds the Tech record for career home runs.

But something happened in the minors, and Wakefield's infield career went nowhere. In fact, the only notation in the Pittsburgh postseason press guide about Wakefield's first season in the minors was that he was hit by a pitch eight times.

"It was very frustrating," Wakefield said. "I came out of college after leading Division II in homers one year. Learning to deal with failure for the first time is pretty tough."

That failure might have been fatal to Wakefield's career if his Single-A manager, Woody Huyke, hadn't caught him goofing off in the outfield before one game, throwing a knuckleball. "He asked me if I could throw it for strikes, and I said yes," Wakefield said. "That winter, they brought up my name in the organizational meetings and asked if I could hit, and Woody said, "I don't know about that, but I tell you what. He throws a pretty good knuckler.' "

So, he was promoted and converted into a pitcher. The road was rocky at first, to be sure, but Wakefield gradually gained control of the pitch, and while he led the Bisons in wild pitches this season he also led the club in victories (10) and posted a 3.06 ERA before he was called up.

In his major-league debut, Wakefield pitched a six-hitter and struck out 10 in a 3-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals that served notice that he would be around.

"I was watching Tom Pagnozzi [the Cardinals catcher] try to swing at that thing, and I've never seen anybody swing like that," said Pirates left fielder Barry Bonds.

"Pagnozzi's a real good hitter, and I thought, 'What's this guy doing? Is his stuff that good?' Then I thought, 'Oh, he's throwing a knuckleball.' "

Wakefield beat the Braves, 4-2, on Aug. 16, in one of his four complete games of the season. Even with a 2-0 series lead, the Braves are so concerned with Wakefield that they brought in Bruce Dal Canton, pitching coach for the Braves' Triple-A farm team in Richmond, to pitch some knucklers in batting practice.

Wakefield says he has learned from the modern knuckleballers, Tom Candiotti of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Charlie Hough of the Chicago White Sox, and actually picked Hough's brain for four hours during spring training.

But Bonds says that Wakefield's knuckler is different from most others in that it can run in on a batter as well as float and drop.

Wakefield said he throws the knuckler at least 80 percent of the time, and as much as 95 percent when it's working. With a fastball that tops out at about 81 mph, heavy use of the knuckler works.

"Any time you have a hitter going up to the plate and he is 99 percent sure of what you're going to throw and he still can't hit it, it has got to be a pretty darn good [pitch]," said Atlanta pitcher Tom Glavine, who will oppose Wakefield tonight.

Wakefield had better be good, or the Pirates will almost certainly be gone.

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