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RED SOX HOPES RIDING ON WAKEFIELD KNUCKLEBALL

Tim Wakefield's knuckleball has been a bedeviling oddity through his 16-year career. It has dazzled and confused.

But it's not the kind of pitch a franchise wants to hang an American League Championship Series on. Fastballs feel better in those situations, maybe a devastating curve. A knuckleball, that is something Aaron Boone hits out for a home run in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS to send the Yankees to the World Series.

But Wakefield, 42, who surrendered that 11th-inning Boone shot, has became the focal point of this postseason for the Red Sox when newfound ace Jon Lester and Boston were hammered by the Rays in Game 3 of the ALCS on Monday.

That tricky knuckleball will be counted on to dance the Red Sox back into the series tonight.

"Wake's been a huge part of our rotation all year, given us extended innings and some good games," said catcher Jason Varitek. "I look forward to him giving us a chance to win the game."

Wakefield, who will become the oldest to start an ALCS game, is 19-5 in 41 lifetime games against the Rays with a 3.32 ERA, but manager Terry Francona admits that is deceptive. He is 0-2 with a 5.87 ERA in three starts against the Rays this season (three homers, eight walks in 151/3 innings).

"Part of that is the fact that they're now a 97-win team as opposed to 67," he said. "Some of it is they have different players."

Wakefield, tied for fifth all time with five LCS wins, seemed relaxed enough after Monday's game, strolling out of the clubhouse with a bound Kenny Chesney Poets & Pirates Tour book.

Joining him under the microscope tonight will be former Ray and Tampa native Kevin Cash, who earned the job as Wakefield's personal catcher when another ex-Tampa Bay player, John Flaherty, retired during spring training in 2006 and Wakefield's longtime catcher, Doug Mirabelli, was released.

"Flash (Flaherty) came over to me that (spring training) first game in Fort Myers and he looked like a deer in the headlights," Francona said. "And the next day he said, 'I cannot imagine doing this every five days.' And he retired."

Cash said a knuckleballer's catcher must learn to accept failure.

"If you try to be perfect and get tense back there, you're going to miss more balls than you should," he said. "You have to know you're going to miss a couple."

But tonight, failure is less of an option.

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