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WAKEFIELD FLOATS TO TOP OF RED SOX ROTATION

The Red Sox celebration was moving off the field, shifting to the visitors' clubhouse, but Tim Wakefield had an old memory to erase, a new image to imprint. He strode to the pitcher's mound in Yankee Stadium and gazed from the rubber, savoring the distinct difference from one October to the next.

It was a year before, while standing in this same spot, that Wakefield had been transformed from ALCS MVP-in-waiting to the latest tragic figure in the Red Sox history of apocalyptic failures. He had been on in relief when Aaron Boone homered to left, ending Game Seven in the 11th inning, propelling the Yankees to the World Series, pointing the Red Sox toward home yet again.

But Wednesday night in New York the roles had been reversed, the end result flipped to Wakefield's lasting relief. The perennial winners had swapped places with the perennial losers. The Red Sox, having staged an unprecedented rally from three games down, had rid themselves of the Yankees in most dramatic fashion. Wakefield, the knuckleballer who'd been agonizingly close two times before, was finally World Series-bound.

"Having to walk off the mound a loser last year, and getting a chance to celebrate on the same field that we lost on last year was an honor for us, for all of us that were there last year and went through what we did last year," he said.

Wakefield was the unsung pitching hero of the ALCS, a deceptively vital contributor to Boston's climb out of the abyss. There's no Red Sox comeback, no history written, unless Wakefield volunteers to pitch in relief in Game Three. He surrendered his Game Four start and spared the bullpen from utter depletion by working 3 1/3 innings in a resounding 19-8 defeat.

"I told Wake after the game that as tough as that night was, I was so proud of him and what he did for us, that it really helped get me through that night," manager Terry Francona said. "He saved a couple of our pitchers that actually helped us win the next night. That's the type of guy he is."

"I think it was huge, just from a respect standpoint and doing whatever it takes for the team," said Doug Mirabelli, Wakefield's personal catcher. "It was huge of him and I was proud of him that he did it."

Wakefield has been rewarded with the start in tonight's opener against St. Louis, the first World Series game in Fenway Park since 1986. He'll be attacking that vaunted Cardinals' lineup with butterflies that, when fluttering unpredictably, has been known to humble the some of the game's finer hitters.

"I've been on the other side trying to hit that thing and it's a hopeless and helpless feeling," said teammate Dave Roberts. "It's amazing to see a guy throwing 75 mph can be dominant at times. But he can be dominating when it's really moving."

Buffalo baseball fans have seen Wakefield at his best, and his worst. He was the talk of the sport in 1992, after a 10-3 record and 3.06 ERA with the Bisons resulted in a promotion to the parent Pittsburgh Pirates. He ended that season with a flourish, going 8-1, 2.25 in Pittsburgh and 2-0, 3.00 in the NLCS against Atlanta. He was the probable Series MVP, right up until the Braves rallied to beat the Pirates in Game Seven.

Wakefield's retreat was as rapid as his advance. He was back in Buffalo full-time two years later, his career reeling. His record was 5-15. His ERA was 5.84.

The Pirates cashed in their chips. They released Wakefield after the season, dismissing as a fluke his great successes of '92. And they weren't alone in their skepticism. Few teams came calling. It was Boston who took the chance, opted to see if Wakefield's knuckler could be revived.

He began the '95 season in Pawtucket and opened some eyes by starting 2-1 with a 2.52 ERA. He was promoted to the Red Sox in a matter of weeks and has been a Boston fixture ever since, rapidly climbing into inclusion among the team's pitching greats.

Only closer Bob Stanley has made more Sox appearances than Wakefield. Only Roger Clemens and Cy Young have pitched more innings. Wakefield is 13 strikeouts away from passing Young on the team's all-time list, which will put him third, behind Clemens and Pedro Martinez.

There's no telling where it might end. Wakefield, 38, might pitch until he's 50. Like all knuckleballers, he's resilient, capable of taking the ball every other day. The wear on his arm is minimal. He's already under contract through 2005. It's hard to imagine him leaving Boston down the road, not after making it to the World Series with the Red Sox, after catching up with the dream he's been chasing all these years.

"You know, I'm excited," Wakefield said. "This is the first time I've ever experienced a World Series and it's the first time the city of Boston has experienced the World Series since '86. I think it's a real honor that I'm getting the nod for Game One."
e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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