BASEBALL PLAYOFFS : Wakefield Has the Hopes of Pirate Fans Aflutter : NL Game 3: Rookie knuckleballer tries to keep Pittsburgh--trailing two games to none--in series against Braves.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A career path marked by the twists and dips of a knuckleball can trace its start to a simple game of catch.

Sixteen years ago, in a back yard in south Florida, it was only Tim Wakefield and his hungry father.

"We would play catch for a while, then my dad wanted to quit, but I didn't," Wakefield recalled. "So my dad would start throwing me knuckleballs. I would miss them and chase them and finally I would get tired and we could have dinner."

Four years ago it was only Wakefield, a minor league first baseman on the verge of being released, and another infielder.

"They are warming up before a game, just tossing the ball around, when my second baseman starts shouting, 'Come here, you've got to see this!" recalled Woody Huyke, Wakefield's rookie league manager. "I go out and see Wakefield throwing an awesome knuckleball. I said, 'Man, you've got to be a pitcher!' "

Tonight at Three Rivers Stadium, it will be only Wakefield, catcher Don Slaught, and the championship hopes of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

With the Atlanta Braves leading the Pirates two games to none, rookie Wakefield will be the Pirates' starting pitcher against the Braves' Tom Glavine in Game 3 of the National League championship series at 5:37 p.m. PDT.

"It has been a tremendous ride," Wakefield said.

The ride began when Wakefield, who was not considered a top prospect, was recalled from triple-A Buffalo on July 31. By the time the season ended, he was 8-1 with a 2.15 earned-run average.

Those two months were so unusual--55-m.p.h. pitches but four complete games in 13 starts--that his presence today has both teams worried.

The Braves brought in minor league pitching coach Bruce Dal Canton during Thursday's workout just to throw batting practice knuckleballs.

"George Brett is the best hitter I have ever seen, but he couldn't hit the knuckleball," said John Schuerholz, the Braves' general manager.

The Pirates are concerned enough that after scheduling Wakefield to pitch Wednesday afternoon, they moved him to tonight so the catchers wouldn't have trouble seeing his knuckleball in the shadows.

"He's a dynamite keg," acknowledged Jim Leyland, Pirates' manager. "Knuckleballers win a lot--and they lose a lot. You never know when a wild pitch or passed ball is coming."

For Wakefield, 26, it will merely be another game of catch.

"Everything he has been through has made him a survivor," said Spin Williams, Wakefield's minor league pitching coach at Buffalo and Carolina. "This is a kid who doesn't worry about the last inning, or the next inning. He knows where he came from, and none of this stuff should get to him."

After setting a school record with 40 home runs at Florida Tech, he hit four home runs in two minor league seasons.

After becoming a pitcher and advancing to triple A, he gave up six runs in 4 2/3 innings in his first game there.

"This year he was the kind of guy at the end of the line," Williams said. "They called a bunch of people up, and there was nobody left, so they called him up."

Pirate management may never have a more pleasant afterthought.

Wakefield threw a six-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals in his major league debut, and finished with victories in his last five decisions.

In his only start against the Braves, he gave up only two ninth-inning runs in a complete-game victory.

Wakefield's number, 49, is shared by baseball's two other accomplished knuckleballers, Charlie Hough and the Dodgers' Tom Candiotti.

And Wakefield didn't plan it that way.

"When he came up, we just went down a list of available numbers and gave them out without thinking," said Roger Wilson, the Pirates' clubhouse manager. "It's just one of those wonders of baseball."

Sort of like Wakefield, who is more a knuckleballer than Hough or Candiotti because he rarely throws anything else.

"I don't want to get beat with anything else," Wakefield said. "Late in the game, with a runner on third, I'm throwing nothing else."

Good thing for his career that he was throwing nothing else during that late spring afternoon in 1989 before a rookie league game at Twin Lakes.

He was using the pitch, taught to him by father Steve, as a joke. But Huyke knew that, without the flutterball, the rest of Wakefield's career could be a joke.

"We had tried him at third base and at first base, and his days were numbered either way," Huyke said. "At our meetings after spring training, they were talking about releasing him and I said, 'Wait a minute, I think we have a pitcher here.' "

Wakefield thought the Pirates were crazy. Then he realized either he pitched, or he was unemployed.

After experiencing moderate success for two seasons, he was given another boost this spring. Once again, it was through a simple game of catch.

This time his partner was Hough.

Jackie Brown, Chicago White Sox pitching coach and Wakefield's former coach, introduced them. They threw in a Sarasota bullpen, with Wakefield wearing street clothes.

"Even then, I knew right away that he knew how to throw the pitch," Hough said. "He did a couple of things funny, and we fixed them."

Tonight Hough and Candiotti, who plans to send Wakefield a telegram, will be watching.

"He may get killed, but that doesn't mean he is any less of a pitcher," Hough said. "Leyland should just give him the ball, close his eyes, and ask for it nine innings later."

Leyland probably will.

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