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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Just call him Lefty Wakefield

As Tim Wakefield continues to run into bad innings and bad luck in his quest to join the ranks of 200-win pitchers, he can take comfort in knowing he's in good company: 70 years ago, another Boston hurler struggled to reach a major milestone.

Robert Moses "Lefty" Grove was 41 years old and nearing the end of a brilliant career when he suited up for the 1941 Red Sox. He had gone just 7-6 for Boston the year before, a record which left him seven wins shy of 300. Like Wake, Grove had a great lineup behind him featuring Hall of Famers Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Bobby Doerr, and Joe Cronin, and although he had next to nothing left on his fastball, he started off strong and notched victory No. 299 at Philadelphia on July 3.

The All-Star Game at Detroit interrupted Lefty's quest, but the southpaw seemed poised to reach the magic circle when Boston faced the Tigers in Motor City on July 11. Amazingly, just 4,083 were on hand at Briggs Stadium, and they saw a great duel between Lefty and Bobo Newsome of the Tigers. Both pitchers hurled complete-game six-hitters, but Newsome got slightly stronger support in a 2-0 win. Grove, famous for his surly disposition in defeat, likely knocked around a few things after this one.

Lefty's next chance came at Chicago on July 18, and again he pitched well enough to win -- allowing just two earned runs in a complete-game effort against the White Sox. Unfortunately, errors by Foxx and outfielder Lou Finney led to two more tallies and a 4-3 White Sox win. Sportswriters and fans pondered whether "Old Man Grove" would ever get the big one.

Before Grove next took the hill on July 25 at Fenway against the Indians, manager Cronin told him "Pop, this is a nine-inning game. I'm not taking coming out to get you." As a Friday afternoon crowd of about 10,000 watched on, the visitors took a 4-0 lead after three innings, but Cronin was true to his word. Grove kept battling, and eventually the Sox came back to win with a four-run seventh -- the key hit a two-run triple by Lefty's best buddy, Foxx. The old man pitched a complete-game 12-hitter.

Just the 12th 300-game winner in history, Grove took the game ball for safekeeping, as he had from each of his previous 299 big-league victories. Cooperstown requested it, however, so Lefty obliged -- and with his set now broken up, gave out the other 299 to kids around his neighborhood.  He never won another game, and retired after the season.

Fans hope Wakefield has at least eight victories left in his rubber arm -- enough to overtake Cy Young and Roger Clemens atop the list of Boston's all-time winners -- but right now they'd settle for just one. Next stop on the Wake Watch: Texas on Thursday.

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