PORTLAND – Charlie Zink went to spring training believing that he was a heartbeat away from being the second knuckleballer on the Boston Red Sox pitching staff.

He still sounds convinced, even as he digests his unexpected demotion to fifth starter for the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs.

“I was pretty surprised,” Zink said. “Upset, for a day or two.”

After Zink’s two tidy appearances with the Sea Dogs last April, the Red Sox rewarded him with nearly a full season at Triple-A Pawtucket.

Zink was a nifty 9-4 with a steady 4.03 ERA in 15 starts, good enough to earn an encore. He doesn’t even have a biography in this year’s Sea Dogs media guide.

But the Red Sox have a happy problem: Too many pitching prospects with live, young arms jockeying for innings. Abe Alvarez, Devern Hansack, Kason Gabbard, David Pauley and potentially a rehabilitating Jon Lester are stacked atop the Pawtucket rotation.

In the same way his mentor Tim Wakefield has been used as middle man and even a closer when the Sox are flush with starters, Zink was ticketed as the odd man out.

“When you look at how many guys they had up in Triple-A who had big league time, you kind of go, ‘Yeah, I (don’t) fit here, so I’m not gonna make that team.’ They would’ve had to make me a reliever, and they still want me to be a starter,” Zink said.

Bouncing around the feeder system is nothing new for Zink, who has spent a partial season in Portland each season since 2003.

He’s packed enough bags and boarded enough puddle-jumpers to know that trades, injuries and call-ups are inevitable. Every transaction at the top triggers a chain reaction throughout the minors.

“They said things happen in the big leagues fast, that guys are going to be moving around, and I’ll be one of the first ones to go up. So we’ll see,” said Zink. “Last year they told me I was going to be here all year, and I was gone the first week. I mean, it all changes day to day, depending on what they need.”

Zink has been overlooked before. He pitched his college ball not at Texas or Arizona State but at the Savannah (Ga.) College of Art and Design.

His coach was none other than should-be-Hall-of-Famer and Red Sox legend Luis Tiant, who convinced Boston to sign the 6-foot-1, 205-pound right hander as a free agent.

During another fruitful stay in Georgia, Zink began throwing the knuckler with Augusta of the Class A South Atlantic League as a pre-game gimmick in 2002.

“I was just playing catch, and I hit a guy in the face. I found out I could throw a knuckleball, and that was it,” Zink said. “It’s given me a nice longevity of a career. They know knuckleballers can eat up a lot of innings and save a pitching staff.”

The Sox set up Zink with a DVD library of its other knuckling mainstay. Zink watched Wakefield’s form and follow-through religiously, developing a floater of his own that is unhittable at times.

In his first foray with Portland, Zink lost out on an August 2003 no-hitter with two out in the ninth inning. He spun a 24-inning scoreless streak late in 2005.

Zink has enjoyed most of that success while pitching every fifth day. Having that assurance makes the temporary step backward a tad easier to swallow.

“As a reliever, if somebody’s getting in trouble, you’ve got to be ready in five minutes,” he said. “As a knuckleballer, if I’m not going good that day, it’s gonna take me longer to figure it out. I definitely need the time (I get) as a starter to warm up and get ready and feel confident out there.”

Although Portland seems farther away from the dream than Pawtucket, Zink knows it’s better than a trade.

Wakefield’s 13 seasons of experience in Boston make him an invaluable resource.

“I’m with the right organization, that’s for sure. Charlie Hough came in with me last spring training, but every year it’s been Wakefield for a couple days here and there,” Zink said. “In my lifetime, he’s the only one I really remember who has been successful. Before that you had Hough and (Tom) Candiotti, but Wakefield’s the one that’s always been the constant. It’s nice having him here.”

The defending Eastern League champions and their fans should feel the same way about the understudy. Even if they have to forgive him for going to Rhode Island in his mind.

Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His e-mail is [email protected]


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