Pirates pin hopes on Wakefield knuckler


ATLANTA -- Mother, teach your son to throw the knuckleball and maybe he will become an instant baseball hero like Tim Wakefield of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Knuckleballers are a rare breed, soft-tossers who throw without much exertion. They often pitch in the big leagues into their mid-40s, sometimes beyond. Hoyt Wilhelm, a Hall of Fame knuckleball artist of the previous generation, appeared in more than 1,000 games. He retired at the age of 49. His legs gave out, not his arm.

Baseball's latest -- and remarkably successful -- knuckleballer is Wakefield, a rookie right-hander out of Melbourne, Fla. Wakefield, 26, goes against Tom Glavine, Atlanta's 20-game winner, tonight in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series.

The Braves lead the best-of-seven series 3-2 and need only one more victory to wrap up their second consecutive NL pennant. Wakefield is standing in their way, trying for a repeat performance of Game 3, when he gave the Pirates their first win of the series, 3-2 over Glavine.

The principal problem for a knuckleballer is sometimes the pitch doesn't break much. When that happens, the batter's eyes light up; he sees a beach ball, not a baseball, and whacks it into the wild blue yonder.

It happened to Wakefield twice Friday. Sid Bream connected in the fourth inning and Ron Gant in the seventh. Neither home run was fatal. They came with the bases empty. Wakefield had outstanding control and went the distance without giving up a walk.

Walks and wild pitches, along with the long ball, are occupational hazards. The catcher, as well as the hitter, doesn't know when and how the ball will have its final break.

Does he ever throw anything else?

"No, basically, I'm a one-pitch pitcher," he said. "Here it is. If they hit it, they hit it."

Is he aware that under normal circumstances, having seen him before, the hitters will improve their timing?

"I don't think by seeing me more than once, or seeing me twice, will give them an advantage," Wakefield said.

What about the pressure? He'll be carrying a big load. If he gets blown out tonight, the Pirates aren't likely to survive. It's a tough assignment, especially for a rookie.

Wakefield paused, then replied, "I've been raised not to put any pressure on myself. Even if I lose, my parents will still love me and the sun is going to come up tomorrow."

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