New Knee Trouble for Knuckleball Pitcher Wright as Sox Battle Yankees; PLUS: Remembering Wilbur Wood, Eddie Fisher

His left knee is once again afflicting ace Boston Red Sox knuckleballer Steven Wright, and it will keep him off the mound for now. He had knee surgery last year.

On October 6, Bill Koch of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette (“Knee pain re-emergence ends knuckleballer Steven Wright’s season”) reported:

Alex Cora was confronted with some bad news as he exited his press conference Friday prior to Game 1 of the American League Division Series.

Red Sox head athletic trainer Brad Pearson was waiting just off the media room at Fenway Park. Steven Wright’s surgically-repaired left knee was ailing, and Boston was about to be short a relief pitcher entering Friday night’s opener against the New York Yankees.

Major League Baseball has approved Wright’s removal from the 25-man roster submitted by the Red Sox ahead of the series. The knuckleballer was replaced by right-hander Heath Hembree prior to Saturday night’s Game 2.

“You go through the rehab processes, the DL stints and you finally feel like you’re in a place where you can contribute,” Wright said. “To not be able to do that, it’s tough. It hit me pretty hard.”

“Hopefully he’ll be back,” Cora said. “It sucks, because he was throwing the ball well, and we had big plans for him.”

Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe says that Wright’s injury “is a blow to Red Sox bullpen.”

The Red Sox spent most of the season without Steven Wright, so they’ll be OK without him. Yet, given the tumultuous status of the Red Sox bullpen, Wright was a savior, posting 13 and 2/3 innings of relief work and allowing just one earned run in September as his fellow relievers were falling apart….

It was always tricky as to when to use Wright. Manager Alex Cora tried him out toward the end of the regular season with runners on base and that didn’t go too well, but Wright was clearly a guy the manager could bring in late in a game for a clean inning. Given the contrast between his 77-mile-per-hour knuckleball and the 95-100 m.p.h. most Sox pitchers throw, the Red Sox sported a nice advantage with baseball’s only knuckleballer. [Um, MLB’s only knuckleballer.]

Wright voiced optimism that his knee will improve, but also confessed that “the fact that we got the MRI and it showed something, it feels like a nightmare to be honest with you.” We hope and trust that he will recover and be back next season. You’re a tough hombre, Steven.

With three games to go, the Sox are tied 1-1 with the Yankees in the best-of-five American League Division Series. The third game is at 7:40 p.m. EST on Monday, October 8, in New York.

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In 2005, Baseball Almanac conducted an interview with knuckleball pitcher Wilbur Wood (born 1941 and still with us). Wood joined the Red Sox in 1966. The “portly, cigar-smoking lefthander” was a “guy who didn’t look like a sculpted god yet somehow found a way to consistently get major league hitters out again and again.” He explained how he came to specialize in the knuckleball and how his pitch compared to those of other knuckleballers around then.

MARK LIPTAK: Wilbur, your career was floundering with both the Red Sox and the Pirates. But then, in 1967, suddenly it all turned around. How did that happen?

WILBUR WOOD: I had spent parts of seven years in the big leagues and as my record showed things weren’t going that well. I was signed as a fastball / curve ball pitcher and did very well with those in the minor leagues but they just weren’t good enough for the majors. I’d be fine for three or four innings but after that when you went through the batting order once I’d start to get hit. I just decided to junk my curve and everything else and go one hundred per cent with the knuckleball. I had actually thrown that pitch a long time, I actually started using it back in high school and semipro ball. Sometimes I’d still throw a fastball to get the hitters timing off but that was only once in awhile.

ML: Hoyt Wilhelm and Eddie Fisher were already on the Sox at that time and they threw that pitch a lot. Did they teach you anything about it that you didn’t know?

WW: We’d talk more about the finer points of the pitch. It’s funny but all knuckleballers tend to throw the pitch the same way. I recently spoke with Tim Wakefield at a charity golf tournament and he held the pitch the same way I did, which is the same way Hoyt and Eddie did.

ML: How was your knuckleball different from Hoyt’s and Eddie’s?

WW: My pitch had a tendency to break down and away from right handed hitters. Eddie’s had a tendency to break down and in to them. Hoyt’s was unpredictable… when he threw it, it could go all over the strike zone. The wind could change how the pitch was moving as well. The area around home plate in most of the stadiums that I pitched in was where the wind would wind up after it bounced off the stands or in some parks like the old Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota, just come right in and bounce the pitch around. A knuckleball acts by having the wind push against the seams.

ML: I always used to feel sorry for White Sox catchers. Guys like J.C. Martin, Jerry McNertney, Ed Herrmann. It had to be rough trying to catch not one, not two but three different knuckleball pitchers.

WW: Well, remember that the guys who caught us on the Sox—and I’d mention Pete Varney as well—they came up through the Sox system and in spring training they’d catch us. In the spring, because you have so many pitchers in camp, you’d bring in just about every catcher in the organization. So these guys had a chance to see it for three years or so. Then, when they made the Sox, they were used to it. Now if guys came in from somewhere else like in a trade, and never saw that pitch before, it would be tough.

Yes, but Woods’s knuckleball was probably pretty tough even for batters who had seen the pitch regularly. There’s no standard pattern for a pitch with no standard pattern.

Speaking of Eddie Fisher (born 1936), according to Revolvy “his best pitch was the knuckleball, and in 1963-1966 he worked out of the White Sox bullpen with fellow flutterball specialist Hoyt Wilhelm.” In 2008 NewsOK had occasion to publishBerry Tramel’s  profile, “Foes knuckled under to Eddie Fisher.”

When he first learned the pitch, Fisher wasn’t allowed to use it.

But in 1958, when Fisher debuted for Corpus Christi of the Texas League, he gave up a first-inning home run, and Fisher told his catcher, Ray Murray, “I’ve got this knuckleball I’d like to try.”

Said Murray, “I think you’re going to need it.”

Fisher pulled out the knuckleball and never put it back.

Fisher goes into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame on Monday night thanks to that knuckleball that carried him to a 15-year major-league career….

Fellow Oklahoman Jim Gentile, a Baltimore slugger in the early 1960s, said hitters were “not too happy to face” Fisher in those days.

“He was a good pitcher. If it’s a good knuckleball, it doesn’t just float. It moves. Swing at it, it might dip, might rise. You never know what it might do.”

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