BOSTON -- George Steinbrenner invested $180 million in the Yankees this season, luxury tax not included, in his ongoing effort to eliminate any chance of defeat. But among the very few things he can't buy in baseball is a solution to Tim Wakefield's knuckleball.
For the second consecutive outing, Wakefield's knuckler fluttered and danced and he and the Red Sox shut down the Yankees, 3-2, in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series on Monday. Boston and New York are tied two games apiece in the best-of-seven series, and Wakefield has both wins and the Yankees' Mike Mussina both losses; Mussina allowed home runs by Todd Walker and Trot Nixon.
Boston's Derek Lowe will pitch against David Wells in Game 5 Tuesday, and considering Wakefield's dominance of the Yankees -- seven hits and three runs allowed over 13 innings -- Little might consider using him as a starter again in this series. It figures he'll be available in relief, at the very least, for Game 6 Wednesday.
Little was asked whether he thought Wakefield's knuckleball was in the heads of the Yankees -- perhaps infecting them with doubt. "It surely seemed that way," Little said.
Sometimes Wakefield's knuckler will start out flat and ineffective and then get better, Derek Jeter said, and sometimes it's good early and then regresses. But the difference in Wakefield in this series is that his knuckler has been good consistently -- even when he struggled in the first inning of Game 4.
Wakefield felt his adrenaline overpower him early, and he walked Alfonso Soriano to open the game before Jeter looped a single into center field. Jason Giambi smashed a line drive, crushing the ball toward right field -- and Boston first baseman Kevin Millar snagged the ball as he moved toward first base; Jeter was moving toward second, and was doubled off. Wakefield continued to flip his knuckler high, walking Bernie Williams. Jorge Posada struck out, however, to end the inning.
In the dugout, Wakefield and catcher Doug Mirabelli talked, discussing the release point of Wakefield's knuckler, and Wakefield would raise his hand slightly to increase the angle, throwing on a downward plane rather than just pushing the ball forward. Wakefield was unhittable for almost the rest of the night.
He struck out Hideki Matsui and Nick Johnson to open the second inning. He got Giambi on a fly with two outs and a runner at third in the third inning. Giambi, serving as the designated hitter, returned to the dugout between his at-bats and watched Wakefield on television, waiting for some moments when the knuckleball might tumble ineffectively. It never happened. "None of his balls tumbled tonight," Giambi said. "They all knuckled."
Mussina was dominant early, striking out five of the first 10 batters he faced, mixing his fastball with his curveball well. Walker led off the fourth inning for Boston, and Mussina attacked him with fastballs, the count reaching two balls and two strikes. Posada gave a signal, perhaps for a curve -- Walker had struck out on a curve in his first at-bat -- and Mussina shook off the sign.
Posada gave another signal. Mussina shook him off again.
Posada called for a fastball, Mussina agreed and threw the ball, high and inside -- not quite as far inside as he probably wanted. Walker jumped the pitch, tomahawked it and drove it into the right-field stands, giving Boston a 1-0 lead.
The Yankees finally threatened Wakefield in the top of the fifth. With one out, David Dellucci singled into right field -- appearing to hit one of the few fastballs thrown by Wakefield -- and Soriano smacked a single to left; Dellucci stopped at second.
Jeter then bounced a grounder off the third base bag, and when the ball ricocheted down the left-field line, Dellucci scored and Soriano reached third on Jeter's double. Giambi then lifted a fly ball into short center field.
Boston center fielder Johnny Damon has a terrible arm, Soriano is among the fastest players in the American League, and Giambi's fly was the second out. But Yankees third base coach Willie Randolph held Soriano. He raced 30 feet down the line, and stopped. Damon's throw skipped across the infield, off line. "We've got the 4-5-6 hitters coming up," Randolph said. "I just make my decisions, and don't second-guess myself. I see what I see.
"If he gets thrown out, you might say, 'Why did you send him with Bernie coming up?' "
Said Torre: "I don't think he would have been safe. I didn't think that was a bad play."
Williams walked, but Posada lined out to left to end the inning, the score still tied, 1-1 -- for only a few more minutes. Nixon looked for a fastball, anticipated a fastball, jumped on the fastball and bashed a home run into the center-field stands, giving Boston a 2-1 advantage. It was the fifth home run allowed by Mussina in his 12 1/3 innings in this series.
By the sixth inning, Wakefield's knuckleball was starting high and diving low, dropping like a barrel over waterfalls, and the Yankees seemed to have no chance. Matsui struck out on three pitches, Johnson whiffed -- Wakefield finished him off with a sidearm knuckler -- and Aaron Boone struck out. Then Wakefield retired the Yankees with four pitches in the seventh.
Boston added a run in the bottom of the seventh, when pinch-hitter Jason Varitek beat a throw to first base on a double-play attempt that would have ended the inning. Mike Timlin shut out the Yankees in the eighth, and Scott Williamson closed out the game in the ninth, despite allowing a pinch home run by Ruben Sierra.
Wakefield beat the Yankees, again, getting deeper into their heads. "Tim Wakefield has been a big-game guy for them," Torre said.
The rainout Sunday enabled Little to juggle his rotation and move up Wakefield to Game 4 and Lowe to Game 5; Lowe's ERA in Fenway Park has been better, by about half, than on the road this season.
At some point, Little will probably have to trust slop thrower John Burkett, and probably will start him in Game 6 in Yankee Stadium. Wakefield could follow in relief.
Or Little could take a big-time gamble. Pedro Martinez's physical condition and stuff seems to be waning from start to start in the postseason, and Little quickly ruled out any possibility that Martinez might start Game 6 on three days' rest. "I can tell you right now, definitely, that will not happen," Little said.
Martinez is scheduled to start Game 7. But Little could have Wakefield available, too, if the series goes that far -- and if Martinez's shoulder is hurting. Based on what Wakefield has done to the Yankees' hitters in the last week, Little could justify the choice; Wakefield might be a better option than Martinez in Game 7. But Little knows by now that a choice like that leaves him vulnerable to extraordinary scrutiny in Red Sox Nation. "I can't really make any promises about what's to come in the series," he said.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.