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In the Wake of a volatile decision.

Byline: Bill Ballou

COLUMN: RED SOX

CLEVELAND - Neither the world, nor the American League Championship Series, will come to an end here tonight, no matter how much the Red Sox win, or lose, by.

That makes Terry Francona's decision to start Tim Wakefield tonight on 16 days' rest, as opposed to Josh Beckett on three, a little less, shall we say, controversial.

Wakefield has been hurt since early August and ineffective since late August. His career record in the postseason is not good, and his career postseason earned-run average against the Indians is 15.57 - 15 earned runs in 8-2/3 innings.

Beckett, at age 27, has established himself as one of the best big-game pitchers in the sport.

"If you set up the series," Francona said yesterday, explaining the decision to go with Wakefield tonight, "if we don't think that it's the better thing to do, then it doesn't become the better thing to do. There are lots of things that make us a better team doing it this way."

Beckett has started on three days' rest twice in his major league career, both times while pitching for the Marlins. Most famously, he started on Oct. 25, 2003, and shut out New York in Yankee Stadium to win Game 7 of World Series. In 2004, at the end of the regular season, Beckett went seven innings and allowed four hits, a run, two walks and struck out eight in a victory over the Expos.

No matter, Francona is not about to budge in his choice of starting pitchers tonight.

"From where I sit," he said, "it doesn't put our team in a better position to win. The circumstances don't apply to what happened five years ago. Our whole team sets up better this way."

Even recently, Red Sox starters have worked on short rest. In the 2004 ALCS, Francona used Derek Lowe to start Game 7 of the ALCS on two days' rest and Lowe pitched brilliantly for six innings in Boston's 10-3 victory.

This is just Game 4, though, and the Sox can come back with Beckett for Game 5 no matter what happens, so circumstances aren't quite as desperate as in '04.

The possibility exists that tonight could be Wakefield's last appearance in a Red Sox uniform. He is not signed for next year, and is playing under a perpetual option that gives Boston the right to sign him or not at the end of each season. But given that he had 17 wins this year and pitched 189 innings, the chances are pretty good he will be asked back.

"I'd love to come back next year," Wakefield said, "but they haven't had that conversation with me, and that's in the hands of the Red Sox."

One question mark heading into tonight, and even extending into the future, is the condition of Wakefield's right shoulder. He had put together a string of excellent starts in August, one of the best such extended streaks of his career, when suddenly it all stopped and he had to shut things down for a week.

He returned after missing just one start, but was never the same. Neither he nor the Sox talked much about the soreness in his shoulder, and in fact both parties said during September that it was fine when it was not.

Yesterday, though, Wakefield was in a more expansive mood and discussed his injury.

"I think it just happened," he said. "I can't remember when it started bothering me, but it bothered me for two or three starts (before the missed one). I think I pitched in Chicago. The day after Chicago, I was in a lot of pain, tried to get ready for my next start, and actually came to the park that day expecting to pitch, and that was the day I missed the start and couldn't do it.

"There's nothing structurally wrong with anything. I just think it's wear and tear, and I can't pinpoint exactly what caused it to start hurting. I know it just hurt. I wish we would have known what caused it, but we couldn't figure it out."

One factor in Wakefield's favor tonight could be that he did not face the Indians during the regular season, and his knuckleball could have more of a novelty effect against a team that hasn't seen him before.

And the way he finished the regular season, and the way he generally has pitched in the postseason, a strong start would be a novelty, period - but one the Red Sox and Francona would welcome.

NAME: BOSTON RED SOX

ART: PHOTO

PHOTOG: THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

CUTLINE: Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia leaps to make a throw, but fails to complete a fifth-inning double play.
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Oct 16, 2007
Words:791
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