- Gordon Edes, Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- This is what happens when the Boston Red Sox are an afterthought on a night the other teams in town have the more compelling storylines.
The Red Sox starting pitcher, mean and Texan, strikes out all three batters he faces in the first inning, all swinging, and then two more in the second, and suddenly basketball playoff games at the Garden seem secondary.
That's the way it began for Roger Clemens on April 29, 1986, the night he struck out a record 20 Seattle Mariners. The NFL draft had been earlier in the day, Larry Bird's Celtics were playing the Hawks in a second-round game in the Garden and the Sox were shunted off to the FM dial, with just more than 13,000 in the stands at Fenway Park.
And Friday night, that's the way it began for Josh Beckett against the New York Yankees. Throwing 95 mile-an-hour fastballs and with his curveball dropping in over the plate like an uninvited guest on the doorstep, Beckett was powerful and poised, unerring and unsparing. The Celtics were being blown out in the Garden, the Bruins were on their way to an overtime loss in Philadelphia and Beckett was conjuring up visions in Fenway Park.
Derek Jeter struck out on three pitches, flailing at a diving cutter that ran away from him. Nick Johnson struck out on a curveball that broke on his knees. Mark Teixeira foul-tipped another third-strike curveball into Victor Martinez's glove.
The second inning was more of the same, with Robinson Cano, one of the game's hottest hitters, and Nick Swisher both going down swinging, while Alex Rodriguez managed to tap one that bounced off Beckett's glove to second baseman Dustin Pedroia for an easy out.
If Larry Whiteside, the legendary Boston Globe sportswriter who in '86 famously left Clemens' 20-K performance midgame for the Garden and the Celtics, was still alive, he would have stuck around this time. The whiff of history was in the air.
"I thought tonight was the best stuff that he has had in any of his starts,'' pitching coach John Farrell would say later, "in terms of his power and the action of his curveball.''
But there would be no history made Friday night. The 37,898 who filled Fenway Park were instead subjected to head-scratching mystery, as Beckett went from unbeatable to unbearable so fast that even Joe West would have been satisfied.
Phil Hughes was the pitcher with the positive takeaway, holding the Red Sox to two runs on seven hits and running his record to 4-0 with a 1.69 ERA in a 10-3 romp over the Red Sox in the first of a three-game series.
Beckett's performance was memorable only in this respect: It happens only once every 100 years or so, where a pitcher mixes mastery and misery in such matching quantities.
We do not exaggerate. The last time a pitcher was charged with nine earned runs, hit two batters and struck out eight was 99 years ago, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. A Philadelphia Athletics pitcher named Jack Coombs gave up nine runs while whiffing 10 and hitting three batters on June 28, 1911.
The last time a Sox pitcher gave up nine runs while striking out at least eight was in 1928, when Red Ruffing gave up 14 runs while whiffing eight. Managers tended to go to the bullpen more slowly in those days, although Terry Francona didn't exactly rush to rescue Beckett during his sixth-inning meltdown.
The Yankees had gotten to Beckett in the fourth inning for three runs traceable, really, to just one mistake, a curveball strike that hung like a piñata for Nick Swisher to whack into the camera well in center field for a three-run home run.
Still, it was a 3-1 game in the sixth when Alex Rodriguez opened the inning with a double on what Beckett described as a pretty good pitch, a 94 mph fastball away that A-Rod lined into left-center for a double.
But that's when it all began to go haywire. Beckett hit Cano in his back knee, his left, with a cutter that struck bone, causing Cano to leave for a pinch runner two pitches later. Then Beckett crossed up catcher Jason Varitek, who was expecting a curve and caught a fastball on his inner forearm, leaving a bruise that would later force Varitek out of the game.
Beckett struck out Swisher and intentionally passed Brett Gardner to load the bases, and the situation still seemed manageable.
But then Beckett walked in a run and allowed a single for another, it was 5-1, and Francona might have been expected to offer him relief. However, because he had dominated the top of the Yankees' order earlier, Francona left him in, and he hit Derek Jeter in the back to force in another run -- and inspire a chorus of angry voices from the visiting dugout. Beckett surrendered an infield hit and then another hit. Only then did Hideki Okajima enter.
The game was in the dumper, and so was Beckett, charged with nine earned runs for only the second time in his career and adding to a baffling sequence of three stinkers in his past four starts -- a yield of seven runs in seven innings against Texas, eight runs in three innings at Toronto and now this. His ERA stands at 7.46.
Asked to assess his season to this point, Beckett displayed far more accuracy than he did in the sixth. "[Expletive],'' he said, employing an adjective that suggests pungency.
There was no satisfying way to explain the unexplainable.
"I just had no idea where the ball was going,'' Beckett said. "I had an idea where it was going, but it didn't go where I wanted it to go. You try to overthrow, your delivery gets all messed up.''
The manager was puzzled. "His command just all of a sudden left him,'' he said.
The pitching coach planned to talk with Beckett later.
"It was one of those situations where he lost his release point,'' Farrell said. "He yanked some cutters in to left-handed hitters, let some two-seamers get away from him. It's frustrating to him. It's frustrating to us.''
Added Farrell: "I don't think any one of us foresaw the sixth inning unfolding the way it did.''
And who could have foreseen this. At the end of the day on May 7, just 30 games into the season, the Sox are 7 ½ games behind Tampa Bay and 6 games behind the second-place Yankees.
On a night they could have used a rocket, Josh Beckett pulled out a dud.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
For Josh Beckett, it went south quickly against the Yankees.