NEW YORK -- The Yankees' hitters spread their feet wider at home plate, trying to cut down the movement in their swings to get better hacks at Tim Wakefield's fluttering knuckleball. But the Yankees might as well have been trying to hammer raindrops.
The Red Sox lack some of the elements possessed by the Yankees, most notably an established closer like Mariano Rivera. But the Red Sox have Wakefield's knuckleball, the X-factor in this series. When his knuckler is dancing and fluttering, as it was in Game 1, it doesn't matter whether he's facing Jason Giambi or Derek Jeter or The Bambino himself.
Once more, the onus of the Yankees' expectations shifts onto the coat-hanger shoulders of Andy Pettitte. The left-hander, who won Game 2 of the Division Series vs. the Twins after Mussina lost Game 1, pitches against Boston's Derek Lowe in Game 2 at Yankee Stadium on Thursday night.
The flags were limp Wednesday night, the air calm. Other knuckleballers who've pitched in Yankee Stadium say they prefer to have more tempestuous conditions, because the heavier currents will swirl toward the mound and knock the spinless knuckler around in the air, making it tougher to hit. But Doug Mirabelli, the Boston catcher, thought the calm air helped Wakefield corral his knuckleball, making the unpredictable pitch more predictable and easier for him to throw strikes.
And Wakefield thought he'd rediscovered something with his knuckler. He didn't feel comfortable with the pitch throwing against Oakland last week, sensing there was something wrong with his delivery -- like a flawed golf swing, he said. While playing catch in recent days, Wakefield went back to some knuckleball fundamentals, locking in his wrist, trying to keep it stiff so he could deliver the ball properly. Mirabelli warmed up Wakefield before the game and knew he would pitch well. "It was a consistent knuckleball," Mirabelli said, "as consistent as a knuckleball could be.
"There was definitely a different look about him -- businesslike, confident."
Wakefield mixed in a few curveballs, a handful of fastballs, but mostly he tossed knucklers, soft, 63 mph to 70 mph. "You're hoping that they just tumble," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "But when you see it moving downward, you just hope (a hitter) catches one."
None of the Yankees ever did. Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui each singled with one out in the second inning, but Aaron Boone flied to center and Nick Johnson grounded out, ending the Yankees' only semi-serious threat against Wakefield in the first six innings. By the time Wakefield was relieved in the seventh, the Red Sox had built a five-run cushion against Mussina and three relievers.
Mussina threw exceptionally well in the first inning, whizzing his fastball and mixing it with cutters and curveballs, his velocity ranging from 76 mph to 93 mph. But after Nomar Garciaparra, Boston's third hitter, fell behind 1-2 in the count, he fouled off a pitch, took two more to reach a full count, and fouled off another.
Garciaparra flied to center eventually, but on the eighth pitch of his at-bat, he seemed to establish a pattern -- the Boston hitters battling Mussina, forcing him to work, wearing him down. Mussina typically pitches with great control, but he reached three-ball counts against five of the first eight hitters.
Mussina is an accomplished pitcher, only one victory removed from 200 in his career, but he is not a massive workhorse, a la Kerry Wood or Mark Prior, usually only throwing 100-110 pitches per start. The deep counts early in the game and Boston's foul balls -- 19 in the first five innings -- wore on him. "He got himself in count trouble," said Torre, "and with this club, more than most clubs, when you get yourself in trouble, they hurt you."
Mussina threw 53 pitches in the first three innings, and Manny Ramirez led off the fourth with a chopper between the mound and first base. Last week, Mussina had a similar play in Game 1 of the Division Series and allowed the ball to go past, a decision that cost him. This time, Mussina lunged for the ball, and it tipped off his glove and into a place where there were no fielders; Ramirez had an infield single.
Ortiz, Boston's designated hitter, was next to bat, with no hits in 21 career at-bats against Mussina, and he quickly fell behind in the count, no balls and two strikes. But Ortiz fouled off a pitch and began fighting his way back into the at-bat, reaching a 2-2 count. Mussina threw a pitch near the outside corner and when home plate umpire Tim McClelland called it ball 3, Mussina glanced in, a mild protest.
The Oakland pitching staff shut down Ortiz for most of the Division Series by firing fastballs near or above his hands. But Mussina, with the count full, threw a fastball low and away, allowing Ortiz to extend his arms -- and with full leverage in his swing, Ortiz blasted the ball into the front row of the upper deck in right field. Ortiz's home run gave the Red Sox a 2-0 lead.
Todd Walker led off the fifth with a homer, pulling a ball down the right-field line -- and when a fan reached out to touch the ball just in front of the pole, McClelland spun his finger to give Walker a home run. Three batters later, Ramirez ripped an opposite field homer, and Boston held an advantage they would never fully relinquish.
Four years ago, Wakefield was left off the Boston playoff roster, and it was gratifying, he said, to be in this position, to win the first game. The Red Sox need three more.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.