Steven Wright's unlikely success continues with mastery of Orioles

BALTIMORE -- Steven Wright has perspective that only comes from stagnating in the minor leagues and being told that learning to throw a knuckleball, the most gimmicky of all pitches, might save his career. And he has the humility of being traded for a fading prospect, yo-yoing between Triple-A and the majors, and then grabbing a spot in the Boston Red Sox's starting rotation out of spring training only because another pitcher got injured.

So, after lowering his ERA to 2.45 and tossing his third complete game in 10 starts Monday, Wright is able to say what everyone else is thinking.

"I definitely sometimes pinch myself," Wright said, "like, 'Man, is this real?'"

Oh, it's real all right. There's no mistaking that David Price is the Red Sox's ace, but the most effective pitcher on the best team in the American League is a 31-year-old knuckleballer who seriously considered retiring two years ago but will wake up Tuesday morning with as many complete games as all-world aces Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale and Johnny Cueto.

Wright's latest gem came in a Memorial Day matinee at Camden Yards. Facing the power-packed Baltimore Orioles lineup, he endured two brief bouts of command trouble in the second and fifth innings but was otherwise in complete control during a 7-2 victory. The high-octane Red Sox offense bludgeoned Orioles pitching for 11 hits, including solo home runs by Jackie Bradley Jr. and David Ortiz and the first homer of rookie infielder Marco Hernandez's career, a three-run shot in the eighth inning that put the game out of reach and might have given Wright the opportunity to finish what he started.

"To go nine innings against that lineup in this ballpark," Boston manager John Farrell said after Wright threw a career-high 122 pitches, "an outstanding job."

Indeed, the top half of the Orioles' batting order -- Adam Jones, Hyun Soo Kim, Manny Machado, Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo -- went 0-for-17 with six strikeouts against Wright, who mixed his pitches like a chemist and changed speeds from 59 mph on his slowest knuckleball to 87 mph on his strongest fastball.

Wright loaded the bases on an infield hit and back-to-back two-out walks in the second inning, but even then, his knuckleball was fluttering so effectively that catcher Ryan Hanigan could barely contain it. The Orioles finally strung together enough hits to tie the score 2-2 in the fifth inning on a triple by Nolan Reimold, a double by .190-hitting Ryan Flaherty, a single to No. 9 hitter Caleb Joseph and a sacrifice fly by Jones.

But once the Red Sox regained the lead on Bradley's leadoff homer in the sixth, Wright muted the Orioles for good, retiring 14 of the final 15 batters. The quintessential at-bat came in the seventh inning, when he fed Jones five consecutive knuckleballs, then froze him with a fastball.

"My heater," Wright said. "How hard was it?"

Told it registered 85 mph on the Camden Yards radar gun, Wright nearly blushed.

"A guy like Jones, he's such a good hitter, he was battling and I felt like you've got one chance," Wright said. "I've said in the past with guys like him, Davis, Trumbo, [Seattle Mariners slugger] Nelson Cruz, you might have one chance to sneak a fastball by them. I was like, 'This is a perfect opportunity to give it a shot.'"

As Farrell said, "I thought today he had probably the best touch with changing speed. He threw the slow knuckleball a number of times to really keep people off stride. We could talk all day about him."

That's because Red Sox officials are as surprised as anyone that Wright is the second coming of fellow out-of-the-blue knuckleball success story Tim Wakefield, circa 1995.

Acquired in 2012 in an under-the-radar trade-deadline deal that sent first base prospect Lars Anderson to the Cleveland Indians, Wright was used strictly for depth purposes in 2013 and 2014. He was beginning to pitch well after the All-Star break last year, posting a 2.59 ERA in four starts against the Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox, New York Yankees and Miami Marlins. Then he got hit on the head by a fly ball in the outfield during batting practice and missed the season's final six weeks with a concussion.

Wright was destined to be the long man out of the bullpen in spring training when fate intervened again. This time, lefty Eduardo Rodriguez injured his right knee in pitcher's fielding drills. Wright held off minor competition from lefties Henry Owens and Roenis Elias and began the season in the rotation.

Two months later, there's no pushing him out. With Rodriguez set to make his season debut on Tuesday night against the Orioles and Farrell empowered by president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski to run the roster as a meritocracy, it was embattled right-hander Clay Buchholz (6.35 ERA in 10 starts) who was forced to the bullpen, even though he is the longest-tenured pitcher on the team and has virtually no experience as a reliever.

At last, the journeyman pitcher who once said of his role on the pitching staff, "As long as I'm on the plane and not riding a bus [in the minors], I'm happy," has staying power.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't [think about that] because, you know, I'm in the big leagues. That's the thing that's everybody's dream," Wright said. "The fact that I'm a starting pitcher on the Boston Red Sox, it's unbelievable."

And the fact that he's pitching as well as almost anyone in the majors?

Even Wright can't be sure it's reality.