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Monday, April 11, 2011

Best Beckett ever? Why Sunday's outing may have been pitcher's best with Red Sox

from http://www.weei.com/

Josh Beckett allowed as few as two hits in eight or more innings for the first time in his career on Sunday. (AP)

The question was obvious: When was the last time members of the Red Sox [2] had seen Josh Beckett [3] be this good?

The answer was meant to reflect the fact that, in eight overpowering innings of shutout baseball, the right-hander was better than he was at any point in a lost 2010 season, or in an unimpressive first start of the 2011 campaign last week against the Indians. But the answer was more far-reaching. On Sunday, in his 4-0 victory over the Yankees [4] (recap [5]), Beckett was quite simply as good as the Sox have ever seen him.

Ever. As in ever.

The claim seems like something between hyperbole and blasphemy. After all, Beckett was singularly dominant in his remarkable rampage through the 2007 postseason.

That October, he logged a complete-game four-hit shutout with eight strikeouts against the Angels, a one-run, 11-strikeout outing against the Indians and a one-run, nine-strikeout performance against the Rockies in the World Series [6].

In 2009, he enjoyed his longest sustained run of excellence with the Sox, producing six starts in which he did not allow an earned run, including his only two regular-season complete-game shutouts (one against the Royals, another against the Braves [7]) in Boston.

Even so, it is not unreasonable to say that Beckett was even more impressive on Sunday than in any of those starts. For validation of the thesis, one needed only to ask the man who has been on the receiving end of Beckett’s best games in Boston.

“Best I’ve seen him. As far as [being] complete, absolutely,” Varitek said. “[It was] eight strong, perfect innings.”

Beckett had total mastery over his full repertoire of pitches on Sunday night. Rarely one to get carried away when breaking down his outings, even he acknowledged that he featured a special pitch mix.

“I just felt like I never did get into like a pattern,” Beckett said. “I felt like I was throwing everything.”

He leaned primarily on a 93-95 mph four-seam fastball that he powered down in the strike zone, helping him to record 11 outs via ground ball. (The Yankees [4] managed to produce just three fly balls or line drives during Beckett's eight innings on the mound.) He also featured the biting two-seam fastball that sends left-handed hitters jolting backward and then dives back over the inside corner of the plate (Beckett punched out Mark Teixeira [8] looking at just such a pitch in the first inning).

To those, he added a hammer curveball that he could either drop into the strike zone or bury in the dirt for swings and misses. And, finally, he featured the changeup that he worked to refine for the 2011 season.

That was the pitch that Beckett used for the most pivotal play of the game, a double-play grounder by Yankees leadoff man Brett Gardner that ended a first-and-second, one-out threat in the third inning.

“Right from the very beginning he was commanding all his pitches,” Sox manager Terry Francona [9] said. “And especially, when he opens up the plate with that two-seamer to the lefties, it seems like it opens up the entire plate. He commanded his breaking ball. He threw it in all counts. He established it to where they couldn’t sit on a pitch, because he was changing speeds going back and forth.”

He got swings and misses on every one of his pitch types, using each to record at least one strikeout. As he blitzed through the Yankees [4], retiring the final 14 batters, New York’s hitters started heading to the plate with a blindfold and cigarette, resigned to their impending failure. Beckett needed just nine, eight and eight pitches to plow through the sixth, seventh and eighth innings (respectively).

Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira [8] would acknowledge after the game that his team could do little more than tip its collective hat.

“They said he might have been hurt last year — he looks fine now,” Teixeira said. “[Beckett had] four pitches — fastball, cutter, curveball, changeup — throwing them all for strikes. Fastball was 94-95 again, which we hadn’t seen in a while. And his location was great.”

So were the results. Indeed, they attested to an outing that — especially given the depth and talent of the Yankees [4] lineup — was as good as, if not better than, anything he’d done with the Sox. It may well be the case that Beckett has never had such a diverse pitch mix working so perfectly for him. The line suggested as much.

This marked the first time that the Sox had held the Yankees to as few as two hits since Pedro Martinez [10]’ historic one-hit, 17-strikeout complete game at Yankee Stadium [11] in 1999. It was the first time since 2002 (again, a Pedro special, this time against the Rays) that a Sox pitcher tossed eight or more shutout innings, allowed two or fewer hits and struck out 10 or more batters.

In the 34 career outings in which Beckett had pitched eight or more innings, he had never before allowed as few as two hits. Until Sunday night, as a member of the Red Sox [2], he had never struck out as many as 10 batters in a game in which he did not permit a run.

The contest was a reminder of who Beckett can be. Varitek suggested that the right-hander remains capable of performing to the level that defined his 2007 and 2009 peaks.

“His stuff’s the same. Absolutely,” Varitek said. “He’s worked real hard to get back to where he was at. … He’s strong, he’s powerful and he’s good.”

Beckett offered a tantalizing glimpse on Sunday. The Sox need not be resigned to the idea that he is now just a back-of-the-rotation starter.

But ultimately, the dominant outing against the Yankees may mean little if Beckett cannot back it up. He was mindful of that fact when asked whether he had any game that would compare to Sunday’s outing against the Yankees in 2010.

“If I do, I can’t remember,” he said with a shrug. “That’s kind of me, moving forward to whatever is next and what I have to do tomorrow. I’m not really looking back.”

Where Sunday ranks among Beckett’s Red Sox [2] starts matters less than what it means going forward. It gave the Sox a much-needed victory, and also served as a reminder of what Beckett can be.

It was not so long ago that the 30-year-old was viewed as the anchor of the rotation. On Sunday, he offered a demonstration of how he achieved that status.

“That was the type of game that an ace throws,” Sox general manager Theo Epstein [12] said. “That was great to see. That’s an understatement. It was exactly what we needed.”

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