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NICK CAFARDO | ON BASEBALL

The majors’ only knuckleballer is the rock of the Red Sox’ shaky bullpen

Steven Wright’s confidence grows as he starts to trust that his surgically repaired knee will hold up.
Steven Wright’s confidence grows as he starts to trust that his surgically repaired knee will hold up. (FILE/ELISE AMENDOLA/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

NEW YORK — I don’t know if it’s prudent or practical to use Steven Wright late in a game or with runners on base, but I do know this — he has been a game-changer for the Red Sox.

As the Sox clinched the division title with an 11-6 win over the Yankees Thursday night, Wright pitched three innings of shutout ball and held the Yankees in check after they’d taken a 6-4 lead off Heath Hembree following Giancarlo Stanton’s grand slam. If it wasn’t for Wright, the Sox might have been swept because the Yankees might have scored all night. Instead, he stopped the Yankees’ momentum with his tricky knuckleball.

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Wright has been the rock of the Red Sox’ shaky bullpen. He has been the sure thing for quite a while now. If the Sox could bridge their starters with Wright and then Craig Kimbrel, that would be the dream scenario. But the postseason isn’t always a dream and it can be a nightmare if the bullpen isn’t right.

At least the Red Sox finally got it over with. They won’t have to lug those dozens of cases of champagne to Cleveland after all.

Wright hasn’t had the smoothest of seasons. He had a version of the Dustin Pedroia knee surgery, in which artificial cartilage was inserted in his left knee in May of 2017. It’s been a long journey back. Even though he’s a knuckleballer, a bad knee is hard for any pitcher because he still has to push off and land. Wright was on and off the disabled list. At one point he had to have a platelet injection to the knee. The knee has been sore at times and when it gets really bad, Wright has to shut it down.

On Thursday night, Cora decided to push him a little bit. He had him go three innings rather than the usual one. In five of his previous six appearances, Wright had gone just one inning and once he went two.

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“I always have the opportunity to go one or two [innings], but after the second inning they asked me how I felt,’’ Wright said. “I said I felt fine and they told me to keep going. I didn’t know if I could or couldn’t because I hadn’t done it, but I did it and I felt good.’’

Cora wanted to see how Wright reacted and how he recuperates after the outing. If all is well, it creates a huge shot in the arm for this team. If Wright can be used for multiple innings in the playoffs, it eliminates the need to reduce the number of pitchers who have struggled. Might as well just go with the guys who can do the job.

If a starter can go six or seven innings and Wright two and then bring in Kimbrel, that’s the goal. Cora has even suggested that between now and the end of the year he’s going to audition Kimbrel to see if he can bring him on in the eighth and have him get four or five outs. The middle man or the setup man is eliminated and team goes right from the 77-mile-per-hour knuckler to the 97-m.p.h. fastball that Kimbrel throws.

So in addition to clinching, the Red Sox experimented and got a good result with Wright.

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There are no other knuckleballers in the majors, so it’s hard for the opposition to prepare for Wright. They can watch all the video, pore through all the scouting reports and none of it is worth a damn. The batter just has to step to the plate and hope the pitch stays still long enough so he can square it and if he can’t he’ll look foolish. Opponents will have to hope that Wright just doesn’t have it that night, hope the ball stays over the plate and that they can time it right. Otherwise, as former Sox manager Joe Morgan would often say, “you won’t be able to hit it with 40 bats.”

Wright’s confidence is rising. He may have been a bit tentative early in the season when he was trying to figure out if the knee would hold. It took a long time for the strength to come and for the weakness to go.

“It’s been on a day-to-day basis,” Wright said. “We do testing after every time I pitch and see how I feel. Tomorrow I’ll be down and just try to recover. It’s a day by day process. It’s been good. It [knee] feels weird sometimes. It’s hard to explain. It never hurts but somedays it feels stiffer than others.”

If Wright did not have the surgery, his career would have been over. So there were no other choices. He said he had to literally learn to walk again. And he had to take it from there little by little. At one point he thought he had made it all the way back, but it was a false sense of security. There were a few other setbacks before he could see that he was over the hump for good. He was on the DL June 22 until Sept. 3 and really, not many people thought he’d make it back. Prior to that he had to serve a 15-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy. Wright was charged with domestic assault and preventing a 911 call at his home in Tennessee after an incident involving his wife in December. Wright’s case was “retired” by prosecutors in Franklin, Tenn., on Dec. 21 and will be dismissed if Wright completes an anger management course, refrains from violent contact with his wife, and incurs no new criminal charges for a year.

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Even now Wright probably looks at the knee and wonders, but the more he gets out there and doesn’t experience a setback the likely it is he’s going to make it.

Wright is 34 years old, but because he throws the pitch he does, he could pitch another 10 years if he wants as long as the knee holds up and he’s still effective. That’s the beauty of the knuckleball. He’s surprised that so few are following in his footsteps. He thinks there are two or three other knuckleballers in professional baseball, in the minors, but he seems to have exclusive rights in the majors.

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“I don’t think anyone is a secret weapon anymore,’’ Wright said. “Just trying to keep them off balance. I’m not the exception, except I’m doing it with one pitch.”

The future for the 2016 All-Star could be as a starter or maybe he stays as a reliever.

Right now, he’s a game-changer, a role the Sox hope extends into the postseason.


Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.