Knuckleballer Steven Wright: “Most Crucial Postseason Weapon”?

CLNS Media Network’s Nick Quaglia discusses the prospective postseason role of Red Sox knuckleball pitcher Steven Wright, whom Quaglia believes to be the “Most Crucial Postseason Weapon” of the Sox.

Despite the team’s success, some people have been worried about the bullpen. One question: who can best fill the gap between starter and closer? Quaglia believes he has the answer.

[T]here is a reliable arm who has taken on a role out in the pen that has shown he can enter games and almost act as a second starter. That makes sense too… [I]n 2016, ahead of a bizarre injury on the base paths, he was one of Boston’s top pitchers in a strong rotation. And that pitcher is Steven Wright.

When people mention Wright, I automatically go back to the 2016 season when the then 32-year-old right-handed knuckleballer arrived on the scene and became one of the most lethal pitchers in the American League. His knuckleball was seemingly unhittable when it was floating. Before injury plagued the remainder of his campaign at the end of August, Wright had an ERA of 3.33 in 24 starts….

If you look at Wright’s numbers this season, he has been by far the most consistent of all of your relief pitchers. And that includes one of the best closers in the game of baseball in Kimbrel….

There isn’t much more that Wright has to do to prove to anyone that he not only belongs on the playoff roster, but also can and will be a pivotal piece to the Red Sox potential postseason success.

The Sox have won 107 games this season. The MLB postseason begins October 2.

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From a September 15, 1985 story by Claire Smith of the Hartford Courant, we learn that Phil Niekro has earned his 300th win. For some reason, his performance that night was light on knuckleballs. But “on the threshold of the milestone only 18 other pitchers have achieved, sentiment took over,” and Niekro deployed his signature pitch.

“As hard as it may seem, I threw three knuckleballs, and that’s when Jeff Burroughs [the final batter] came up to the plate,” Phil Niekro said. “I figured if there’s anyway I’m going to win my 300th game by striking the guy out, I was going to do it with the pitch that won the first game for me.”

So, after Burroughs took a fastball for a strike, he got three butterflies. He took the first for a ball and the second for a strike. Then the Toronto designated hitter swung through the third knuckleball, giving Niekro the milestone victory that had eluded him for four starts.

“I can’t say it [winning 300 games] has never been done before because it has been,” Niekro said. “I think the main thing is that it does show that you don’t have to throw the ball 95 m.p.h. or have a Dwight Gooden curveball to win in the big leagues. As you know, the knuckleball was taught to me by my father, and I’ve thrown it my whole career. Maybe it will set an example for some people who don’t have that ability to throw the fastball or curveball. If you do have a pitch that you can get over the plate, you can win.”

In 1997, Niekro would be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Baseballhall.org notes that

Niekro pitched until he was 48 years old, baffling hitters with his dancing knuckler.

His final record: 318-274 with a 3.35 ERA, five All-Star Game selections and two 20-win seasons.

“Trying to hit [Niekro],” said five-time All-Star Bobby Murcer, “is like trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks.”

According to our research, this is not exactly true. With a little practice and not too much frustration, eating Jell-O with chopsticks can be mastered. Connecting with a good knuckleball is lots harder.

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