Wakefield latest challenge for Francona

BOSTON -- Now in his seventh season as Red Sox manager, Terry Francona has had to deal with more than his share of clubhouse issues.

One day he'll be able to write a book about Manny Ramirez. But there also were the Idiots, Pedro in diva mode, Nomar at his most miserable, the never-lost-for-an-opinion Curt Schilling, a John Smoltz in decline … There has never been a time in Francona's tenure in Boston that he could go on automatic pilot.

But this season may yet prove to be the acid test of Francona's considerable skill in navigating the fine line between what a team hopes to achieve and the individuals whose own needs, egos, pride and insecurities can be at cross-purposes with the collective goal.

On Sunday, Francona confirmed what has been an open secret for the last few days, that Tim Wakefield is headed to the bullpen to make room for Daisuke Matsuzaka. Wakefield becomes the latest member of the team's veteran core to see his role curtailed from what it had been in better days.

Wakefield's reaction? "I don't have any," he said, electing for the moment, at least, to swallow his anger at the decision, even as his eyes gave away what his words did not.

Jason Varitek is the dedicated captain spending more time on the bench than the field. David Ortiz is the charismatic slugger summoned back to the dugout for a pinch hitter. Mike Lowell is the proud veteran wounded when he was all but discarded last winter, now watching another man playing his position.

And now there is Wakefield, the most tenured of all Sox players, the one who has made sacrifices throughout his career with little or no complaint, the one who always has his spikes on the bench, the one who expended great effort to recover from back surgery to prove he still deserved a spot in the Sox rotation. Wakefield, who in 2009, just a couple of weeks before his 43rd birthday, became an All-Star for the first time in his career and who was drawing ever closer to realizing the dazzling personal achievement -- especially given the humble origins of his career with the Sox -- of becoming the winningest pitcher in the history of the franchise.

All spring, when the question was asked of how the Sox intended to accommodate six qualified starting pitchers in a five-man rotation, Francona had brushed aside speculation that Wakefield was the most likely candidate to go to the bullpen, saying Wakefield was a starter and that is the role in which he had the greatest value to the team.

And now here came Sunday afternoon, when Francona publicly acknowledged that Wakefield had been bumped by Matsuzaka, who will start Saturday night in Baltimore. Wakefield has known of his fate since Thursday, when Francona informed him before that night's game.

Even so, he pitched well Sunday, leaving with a 4-1 lead with two outs in the seventh inning, only to see Hideki Okajima cough up that advantage when Nick Markakis doubled home a run (charged to Wakefield) and Miguel Tejada followed with a game-tying, two-run homer.

"I thought he had a lot on his mind all week," Francona said. "You could tell. That's why we talked to him the other day. Maybe we made it harder for him. We weren't trying to.

"He's a good pitcher. We've always viewed that and we'll continue to. We're going to have some things to deal with, as we always do with a lot of things. This will turn out good. I believe that."

Asked if it might be difficult to persuade Wakefield that this will have a good outcome, Francona was forthcoming in his response. "Probably," he said. "I certainly understand that, yeah. I have a lot of respect for what Wake has done, and what Wake will continue to do, and again, this is not us turning him into a reliever. This is us putting him in the bullpen until he starts again."

While it may come across as spin, this was not Francona being disingenuous. The Red Sox's expectation was that at least one of the six starters would not be available at any given point of the season. The Red Sox went through 11 starting pitchers in each of the last two seasons, so no one viewed having six starters as a surplus.

Francona was able to delay a decision when Matsuzaka began the season on the disabled list
after missing more than three weeks with a back issue, and also was pushed back because of a stiff neck. Even when healthy, the Sox were not impressed with how he threw in spring training, so they had no issue with his beginning in Pawtucket and frankly, probably thought he'd need more time than he did.

But Matsuzaka noticeably improved from start to start in his three rehab outings, and the command that was missing in Florida surfaced again with the PawSox. The time was ripe to bring him back.

With Matsuzaka back, the Sox had a choice to make between Wakefield and Clay Buchholz. Buchholz has an option left and could have been sent down, but there is nothing left for him to prove in the minors. His 2.70 ERA is best among Sox starters, and in his last start, he struck out a career-high 10. There was no going back to Pawtucket, and no justification for putting him in the bullpen, either.

But how to justify the decision to Wakefield, who outside of two relief appearances in 2004 has been used exclusively as a starter since May 2003, after spending years of swinging between starting and relief, including a stint as closer in 1999?

Francona had only one explanation at his disposal: This is what is best for the team. And even Francona understood those words would probably ring hollow to Wakefield, whose loyalty to the team is beyond reproach.

"We think he can handle that," Francona said. "I understand emotions are involved. A lot of things are involved. We're trying to do what's best for the ballclub, and we'll work our way through this."

There is a unifying thread that connects Wakefield and Varitek, Lowell and Ortiz. They have character, the kind that puts a premium on not being corrosive influences in the clubhouse. But they also are human, intensely proud and competitive. This is no easy thing for any of them, watching their roles reduced, regardless of how much they might understand the reasons why.

Winning can be a salve to the deepest of wounds. But should the Sox struggle, this could turn into a long, hot summer.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.