This spring, the Red Sox will induct two members of The 25 into the team's Hall of Fame. During their tenure with the Red Sox, Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield were both fan favorites, revered for their workman-like approach to the game and their steady contributions. But while both players drew admiration and allegiance from Red Sox Nation for their consistent presence on the field, they rarely ever took the field together.
One inning in 2004 stands out as an exception, however. And that often overlooked inning holds a special place in the lore of The 25.
From 1997 to 2011, Jason Varitek caught 12,166 innings for the Red Sox. In that same span, Tim Wakefield pitched 2,599 innings. In that time, Varitek caught Wake all of 489 innings.
It was a perfect plan actually. In his prime, Jason Varitek was a plus-hitting catcher with the reputation of a master game-caller (since validated by advanced statistics). He caught more 100 games ever season from 1999 to 2008. Assigning Wakefield a personal catcher meant locking in regular rest for Tek while saving the man who would become the team captain the physical and mental strain of having to handle the knuckleball. For the majority of the time Wakefield and Varitek spent together on the Red Sox, Doug Maribelli was Tim Wakefield's personal receiver. So unique was Maribelli's skill in handling Wakefield that when the Red Sox decided to send him to the Padres to land second baseman Mark Loretta in December 2005, they ended up having to send his replacement Josh Bard and reliever Cla Meredith to San Diego to bring him back by early May.
And so it was that these two future Red Sox Hall-of-Famers, one the everyday catcher and the other a workhorse starter, spent 15 season on the same team and worked just over two seasons worth of innings together.
And one inning in October that helped change the story of the Boston Red Sox forever.
After an improbable comeback in Game 4 that featured Dave Roberts' steal, Bill Mueller's clutch hit and perhaps Big Papi's most iconic post-season home run, the Red Sox were still on the edge of elimination in Game 5. After six innings of Mike Mussina against Pedro Martinez and four innings of the bullpens battling it out, the game stood at a 4-4 draw. As he did so often in his career, Tim Wakefield took the ball in extra-innings in the postseason, putting the team on his shoulders.
This time, however, Tek stayed in the game.
The Red Sox captain was due up fifth in the 12th inning and with the two teams deadlocked in an extra-inning battle for the second straight night, manager Terry Francona couldn't justify sacrificing Varitek's power and patience at the plate in what could be a decisive at-bat . Fortunately, Wakefield's knuckler was dancing and the 12th went quickly. Varitek's chance to end the game didn't materialize in the 12th, as the Red Sox put up the minimum against Estaban Loaiza thanks to David Ortiz's caught stealing.
What would follow, stands today as one of the most nerve-racking innings in Boston Red Sox history. With Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek back in the battery together for the 13th, the Red Sox hopes for victory danced right to the razor's edge.
There was no doubt about Wake's stuff. In his first inning, he punched out Tony Clark on three pitches. Miguel Cairo touched him for a first-pitch single, but he got two quick fly-outs from Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez to escape unscathed. With the heart of the Yankees order up in the 13th, Wake looked capable of holding the barbarians at the gate. He battled with the always-dangerous Gary Sheffield to start the inning and got the K-
Except, Tek didn't catch the ball. Sheff landed on first, no one out.
Varitek was clearly out of his element trying to handle a knuckleball that had the Yankees powerhouse offence baffled, but two more quick outs seemed to be enough to settle even the most sensitive Red Sox tummy. Except that Jorge Posada was up. No Red Sox fan could forget the role Posada played in the unraveling of Pedro in the '03 ALCS and here he was again with a man on and the game on the line. And with the count 1-1, Tek missed another, allowing the runner to reach second. That was enough to end the battle against Posada. The next three balls came to Tek well out of the zone for an intentional walk.
Up stepped Ruben Sierra. Like Tek, Sierra could end the game with a single swing. The veteran slugger had 17 home runs in part-time duty with the Yankees during the regular season. He also struck out 55 times. Another K looked like it was in the cards as Wakefield got up 1-2 on him. Then another one got by Varitek. Both runners advanced. Two outs, runners on second and third.
Now a passed ball could put the Yankees on top. Even if Wakefield got the strikeout, the inning might continue. In the course of 28 pitches, Varitek had allowed three passed balls and looked bad stabbing at several others. The first passed ball had turned a strikeout into a baserunner and the other two had put runners in scoring position. Fans of the Red Sox in those days before The 25 started to see the demons of the past failures rising again. This was how it always happened. For 86 years, the players who carried the team day in and day out turned into goats in October. Pesky held the ball, Lee hung a curve. Bill Buckner. And just year earlier, Tim Wakefield against Aaron Boone. It was all too easy to imagine adding ‘Tek missed the ball" to the list of wounds that might never heal.
But that is what was different about The 25. That night, like the night before and the next two nights after, the Red Sox didn't break
The moment Varitek snagged that floating knuckler out of the air, a collective sign of relief washed over Fenway Park and across Boston and out over all of New England. Varitek didn't deliver in the 13th and he returned for the top of the 14th, handling a one-two-three inning from Wakefield without incident, allowing David Ortiz to come through again with another walk-out hit.
Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek were at the heart of that 2004 team and every team from that era, an era which stands out as one of the greatest times in the history of the franchise Both are well deserving of their place in the Red Sox Hall of Fame. It is fitting that they will go in together, even if they were rarely connected on the field during their time on the club. They were not the real stars of those teams, but they were still so essential. They embodied the mental toughness and grind-it-out approach that made The 25 what it was. And for one inning in October of 2004, they brought fans to the edge of their seat, dredging up the ghosts of the past, before showing everyone why this time would be different.