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How Steven Wright came to have Boston all aflutter

Steven Wright (1.52 ERA) has been a master of the mesmerizing knuckleball this season. Barry Chin/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

No one on the Red Sox pitching staff has better stuff right now than Steven Wright. Up stuff. Down stuff. Sideways stuff. What-was-that? stuff.

Trying to figure out what Wright’s next pitch will do ties hitters into knots, dings and dents the body of Sox catcher Ryan Hanigan, and sometimes even dismays the 31-year-old knuckleballer himself.

Ten years into a pro career of stalls and starts, it appears the one-time college sociology major has mastered the dips and darts of a pitch very few in baseball history have controlled with success, and suddenly he has become an unexpected linchpin of the Red Sox rotation.


“Radar? What do you mean?’’ said Wright, asked if he was aware how the Red Sox targeted him in 2012 while he toiled in the relative obscurity of Cleveland’s minor league system. “I thought I was on nobody’s radar. I had no idea. Nope.

“When they told me I got traded, honestly, I remember thinking to myself, like, ‘Who the heck would want me?’ ’’

Unassuming yet confident — as confident as anyone who lives off a 78-mile-per-hour pitch dares to be — Wright (3-3) will make his seventh start of the season Friday night, going up against the Houston Astros at Fenway Park. Fresh from Sunday’s impressive complete-game 5-1 win over the Yankees, he owns the third-best ERA (1.52) in the American League and has held opponents to an anemic .172 batting average. He also owns a 38-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is even better than that of Tim Wakefield, Boston’s retired Svengali of dipsy doodle.

“No matter what, he’s always the same guy,’’ noted Sox manager John Farrell, who entered spring training with Wright merely a fringe contender for a spot in the rotation. “Whether you talk to him the day of the start, or the day before, his emotion, his mentality doesn’t change. It’s kind of refreshing, actually.’’


Going all in

Wright grew up in Los Angeles’s eastern suburbs, near Riverside, Calif., and was offered the chance to turn pro in 2003 out of Valley View High School in Moreno Valley, drafted in the 26th round by the San Diego Padres.

“Excellent shortstop and a fine hitter, too,’’ said his high school coach, Matt Davis, a former minor leaguer in the Giants, Brewers, and Yankees systems. “Like a lot of people, I thought he could make a career of it, but likely as a hard thrower with pinpoint control and great breaking ball. I don’t think anyone saw the knuckleball thing coming.’’

Rather than turn pro out of high school, Wright opted for the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where composure and a fastball in the low 90s convinced the Indians to select him in Round 2 of the 2006 draft. For a signing bonus of $630,000, he left school after his junior year for the big league dream, one that five seasons later was paying him peanuts and likely not to offer more.

“That’s kind of where I was at,” recalled Wright, who today, because of limited service time, is barely making over the major league minimum of $507,500.

“I was 25 years old, going back to Double A for my fifth year, married with a kid on the way. I came to the point, thinking, ‘You know, I am going to go all in, because if this doesn’t work out, I am going to have to get a job somewhere else.’


“When you are in the minor leagues, you are making, like, $12,000 a year. You can’t afford to live on that, let alone raise a family. So I figured, heck, I’ll go all in.’’

Goodbye, fastball, curve, and slider. Hello, knuckleball. All in.

Wright was 9 years old when he first threw the pitch, while taking pitching lessons in California from former major leaguer Frank Pastore. Little did he know in 1995 that his best shot at fame and fortune wouldn’t be a 90 m.p.h. heater, but the fluttering, unpredictable pitch that Pastore tossed back to him one day on a whim.

“That was pretty much it,’’ said Wright, recalling that day with Pastore, who died four years ago following injuries from a motorcycle crash. “I was just intrigued by the fact that you could throw a baseball forward with no spin.

“So he was the one. He just told me, ‘Look, you never know. You never know when you might need it.’ ’’

Red Sox find their man

In the summer of 2012, Sox scout John Lombardo hit the road, fresh from a conference call with the front office staff that included Wakefield. The topic of the call: what to look for in a knuckleballer.

With Wakefield’s 19 years worth of input, Lombardo went hunting, soon to come across Wright in the midst of trying reinvent himself as a knuckleball pitcher in Akron (Double A). It seemed the 6-foot-2-inch righthander fit the specs Wakefield put on the table, but Lombardo wanted to be sure, initially wondering if he was only seeing what he wanted to see.


“Just because of the simple Fact A: You never see knuckleballers,’’ said Lombardo. “I did have to slow myself down. Quite honestly, that’s why I did the research I did: saw him on the side, I dug around as much as I did. Just to make sure what I was seeing was what I thought I was seeing.

“It was such a unique situation, you do have to take a step back and say, ‘OK, let’s just make sure here before we start making phone calls and pounding the table.’ ’’

Finally, with two months to go in the 2012 season, the Sox shipped Lars Anderson to Cleveland for what amounted to a flyer on a wannabe knuckleballer. Wright was assigned to Portland (Double A), then Pawtucket, and then shipped off to the Dominican Republic for winter ball.

He finally made it to Boston, making one start in both 2013 and ’14, then was getting regular starts last season before getting sidelined by a concussion. When projected starter Eduardo Rodriguez went down with a knee injury early in spring training this year, Wright pitched himself into the starting five.

“This game, you have to work hard, but you need some luck, too,’’ said Wright. “I’ve been blessed to be in the right place at the right time with a lot of good people in my corner. I feel like you get an opportunity and then it’s what you do with the opportunity that dictates it.


“I have been lucky enough to have some good outings when I did have an opportunity. But we still have a lot of work to do. We’re only six starts into the season, so I don’t want to look too far into the success or failures.’’

A matter of trust

Former Sox pitcher Dennis Eckersley is no stranger to radical career transformations. He entered the game as a prized starter, only to carve himself a Hall of Fame career as one of the game’s premier closers.

Like much of Sox Nation, Eckersley marvels over what Wright has done thus far, and can’t help but wonder if the Sox have themselves the next Wakefield, someone who could be a fixture in Boston for a decade or more. With such little stress on the arm, knucklers often pitch into their 40s.

“We’re already projecting ‘what if’ for this kid,’’ said Eckersley, now a member of the NESN broadcast crew. “I don’t know if it’s fair or not, but we all compare it to Wakefield starting out in 1995. This is like a diamond in the rough, right?’’

Eckersley is particularly appreciative of what it took for Wright to abandon the conventional way of pitching for the chance to reboot as a knuckleballer.

“To make that move and say, ‘This is what I am going to do,’ that takes a lot [of guts],” offered Eckersley. “And you are going to get knocked around a little bit, because you’ve got to get innings to get it down right.

“And then to keep it going, when you know you can throw 87 m.p.h., and you’ve got a good hook? If that’s me, I’d be saying, ‘Really, I am going to throw another damn knuckleball at 3-and-0 — and just walk the guy?!’ It is a tough mentality.’’

Another Sox great, Luis Tiant, also has been duly impressed. By his eye, one of the game’s great failings today is its overall conformity, pitchers and hitters following conventional, time-proven methods. It was injury, in part, that led El Tiante to develop his body-twisting, head-bobbing delivery that made him a Sox icon in the 1970s. Had he not improvised, who knows?

“Whatever you do, if it’s not working, you better change,’’ said Tiant, who said he used a knuckleball exclusively as an out pitch for lefthanded batters. “If you don’t change, you’re going to be home soon — and sooner than you think. That’s true with this game, or any sport.’’

Tattooed on Wright’s left forearm, visible to him each time he holds up his glove hand before delivering his next pitch, is the word “trust,’’ spelled out in logographic Chinese characters (or Kanji). He added it during his junior year in Hawaii, the year he became an All-American, only months before he signed with Cleveland and began his pro ball odyssey.

A decade later, he’s still pitching, tinkering, adjusting arm slot and release point, wondering how the day’s temperature and prevailing wind will influence his next pitch. Still trusting.

“Trust is a huge thing, man, you’ve got to trust everything,’’ said Wright, who is now married with two children. “For me, I trust God, I trust my family, I trust my friends. If I don’t trust you, I am not going to hang out with you . . . and you’ve got to trust yourself.

“It is such a big word and can mean so much. Everything you do is trust. You go out there, you’ve got to trust your teammates, trust your abilities, their abilities. If you forget that, then you will try to overdo things and the next thing you know, you’ll be in the hole.’’

A fair share of that Wright trust has been placed in Hanigan, the catcher charged with the challenging task (bruises as proof) of pairing as his batterymate.

“Thank God for Hanny,’’ said Lombardo. “That’s not an easy job.’’

“It is a humbling thing,’’ acknowledged Hanigan. “Because, hey, I’ve taken a lot of pride in my defense over the years. I’ve always been a solid defender, but when balls start bouncing around, it can mess with you a little bit.

“But at the same time, you know he is pitching well for us. He’s a good guy and a guy we really need.’’

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Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.