John Donovan
Thursday October 9th, 2003

NEW YORK -- There was a strange, positively un-New York-like kind of calm in the Bronx midway through Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Wednesday. That kind of quiet hardly ever happens here. Never, in fact, when the Boston Red Sox are in town.

Blame Tim Wakefield. He has that effect on people sometimes.

Boston's baffling knuckleballer confounded the Yankees, and put a full house at Yankee Stadium into a semi-comatose state, giving the Red Sox a 5-2 win and announcing to one and all that the Red Sox will not be pushovers this series.

How good was Wakefield -- usually considered just one of Boston's other starters -- in Game 1?

Good enough that the big-swinging Yankees still have no idea of how to deal with him.

"I don't know," Yankees third baseman Aaron Boone said. "You just have to get a good pitch on the plate. Make him get the pitch up in the zone, and get the big part of the bat on it. That's the challenge with a knuckleballer."

So ... the way to beat Wakefield, when he's on, is to have him throw the ball over the plate, above the knees, and let you try to whack it from there?

Wow. That sounds like some kind of plan.

"It's different," Boone said. "It's just so ... different."

Wakefield and his famed knuckleball were at their dancing, diving, frustrating best for six-plus innings of Game 1 in this best-of-seven series. He allowed just two hits and two walks before he was pulled in the seventh.

He was efficient (10 pitches one inning, 11 in a couple of others, 12 in one, nine in another), he was effective (the two hits were both singles in the second inning and didn't lead to a run), and he was a popup-inducing machine (10 of them).

And, strangely enough, none of that was new this October. Wakefield has pitched in three games this postseason, two of them starts, allowing five earned runs in 13 2/3 innings for a pretty respectable 3.28 ERA.

It may not be Pedro-like, but it's been plenty good enough.

"You discuss him. I don't want to discuss him," Yankees manager Joe Torre joked after the game. "I caught Phil Niekro, or I tried to catch Phil Niekro, for a number of years. You could see how frustrated clubs get. Timmy, he was terrific tonight."

Wakefield is no stranger to pitching in Yankee Stadium. He won two games here this season. Game 1 makes three. But he is a tad unaccustomed to winning, or doing well, in the playoffs, at least with Boston.

In 1995, against the Cleveland Indians, he was 0-1 with an 11.81 ERA. In '98 against the Indians, he was 0-1 with a 33.75 ERA (OK, so he only pitched 1 1/3 innings). In '99 against the Indians, he pitched two innings, walked four, gave up three hits and three runs for an ERA of 13.50 -- and then the Red Sox dealt him the ultimate indignity, leaving him off the roster for the LCS.

"It's a totally different year this year," he said. "I feel very blessed to be in this situation again."

Last week in his team's Division Series against the Oakland A's, he gave up three earned runs in 7 2/3 innings.

All with a pitch that is about as reliable as Boston has been in the postseason.

"He was throwing strikes, that's the thing," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "You try to be patient, but if he's throwing strikes with it, you find yourself in the hole."

Wakefield's gem was exactly what the weary Red Sox needed. After flying all the way from Oakland on Monday night after Boston's emotional Game 5 win and laying low on Tuesday, the right-hander came out and put down the top of the Yankees' lineup in order in the first inning. That immediately quieted the crowd, and the Stadium faithful stayed quiet as the Red Sox built a 5-0 lead.

"We didn't really give them much to cheer about," Jeter said.

The Yankees fans didn't start to rumble until Wakefield walked the first two batters in the seventh. He was pulled, and the runners scored, but the Red Sox held on to ensure at least a split in Yankee Stadium for the first leg of this 2-3-2 format.

Maybe the best byproduct of Wakefield's win is what it does down the road. If the Yankees are to beat the Red Sox, they'll have to learn to hit Wakefield's knuckler.

"It's something you've got to do," Boone said.

If the Yankees are to hit Wakefield next time around, they'll need another plan.

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