Wakefield still getting it done at 44

Before the game, Robinson Cano asked me if I thought Tim Wakefield was a Hall of Famer.

I got busy on my iPhone, summoned Wake’s career stats on baseball-reference.com and said probably not.

One-hundred ninety-five wins are impressive, I told Cano, but Wake’s career ERA of 4.38? Too high.

“Yeah, but he’s a knuckleballer,” Cano said, surprised that I did not view Wake as a more serious candidate. Cano then offered his own ringing endorsement.

“Tell Wakefield he’s got my vote,” he said, smiling.

Going strictly by the numbers, Wake certainly did not enhance his case for Cooperstown on Wednesday night, allowing the Yankees five runs in 5-1/3 innings.

But guess who outpitched A.J. Burnett to earn career win No. 196, an 11-6 triumph that lifted the Red Sox into sole possession of first place in the AL East?

The old man of whom I wrote these misguided words in spring training:

“Wakefield is clogging the staff. At some point, the Red Sox almost certainly will need to make better use of his roster spot.”

I swung and missed so badly on that one, I might as well have been flailing at a Wakefield knuckler.

Wake, after winning only four of 19 starts last season, is 3-1 with a 4.84 ERA in six starts. His 196 wins are the most of any active pitcher. His 182 wins with the Sox are 10 shy of the club record shared by, ahem, Roger Clemens and Cy Young.

And there’s more.

Wakefield, who turns 45 on Aug. 2, combined Wednesday night with catcher Jason Varitek, 39, to form the oldest starting battery in Red Sox history — and the oldest in the majors since Jamie Moyer and Pat Borders did it for the Mariners in 2005.

Varitek normally does not catch Wakefield, but he was pressed into duty after Jarrod Saltalamacchia became ill earlier in the day. Afterward, Varitek spoke with admiration about the movement of Wakefield’s knuckler, particularly the “double-breaker” that “kind of goes left and right.”

How long does Varitek think Wakefield can pitch?

“As long as he wants to. As long as his body holds up,” Varitek said. “What he does, he has such a unique ability to consistently be able to do it, it puts him in an elite status.”

To think, some with the Sox actually fretted over Wakefield in spring training. Their rotation was five deep, and Wake was slated to be a long reliever, a role he does not relish and that does not especially suit him.

I remember one Sox official telling me he worried about Wake, with his history of back trouble, trying to cover first base. So naturally, there was Wake on Wednesday night, sprinting to first, beating the speedy Brett Gardner to the bag and catching a throw from Adrian Gonzalez for the final out of the fourth inning.

As Gardner slid head-first, Wakefield stumbled over him, kicking him in the head, tumbling to the ground. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia helped Wake to his feet. Varitek put his arm around the pitcher.

“We almost had to get a wheelbarrow to get him off,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said, joking.

Wakefield, who occasionally spars with Francona over his role, did not seem amused.

“That’s him being him,” Wake said of his manager.

Actually, Francona was highly complimentary of Wakefield, lauding the 20-year veteran’s professionalism for always covering first, always backing up home plate.

“It’s hard not to root for him,” Francona said later, in a private moment.

The Red Sox are 5-4 in games started by Wakefield and fellow righty Alfredo Aceves, who touched 95 mph against his former team on Wednesday night and pitched the final 3-2/3 innings for his first save.

Rotation depth is an issue for nearly every team, including the Red Sox. But the Sox look downright loaded compared to the Yankees, who have gotten poor starts from Burnett and Freddy Garcia in this series.

There is no guarantee that Wakefield will remain a healthy, viable starter all season, but know this: Wake is an immensely proud competitor, fiercely aware of his ranks in Red Sox history and among active pitchers.

When a reporter asked Wakefield if he was aware that he led all actives in victories — Roy Halladay is next with 177 wins — Wake joked, “That’s old news. Have you heard of the Lindbergh baby?”

Wakefield, it seems, was born not long after the Lindbergh baby, but enough with the old-man jokes.

I waited for Wakefield as the traffic around his locker cleared, wanting to tell him what Cano had said. Cano, one of the game’s best hitters, would vote for Wakefield for the Hall of Fame.

“That’s pretty cool to hear that from another player,” Wakefield said. “It’s a pretty cool compliment.”

He sounded genuinely touched.

“I appreciate that,” Wakefield said, nodding. “It means a lot.”