Not perfect, but Beckett comes close
Sox ace shines with 'classic' outing that wins approval from new pitching coach
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Maybe it was because he had witnessed perfection, which by definition is in a different universe than near-perfection.
Maybe it's because it is not in his nature to raise his voice, even to be heard over a hurricane. But this was the reaction of Boston Red Sox pitching coach Curt Young on Wednesday night after Josh Beckett had allowed just one base-runner in a one-hit, complete-game, 3-0 shutout of the Tampa Bay Rays.
"Gotta like that one, huh?'' Young said, as he quietly dressed in front of his locker in the visitors' clubhouse of Tropicana Field.
"Just classic. Lot of hard in, a lot of good changeups, nothing in the middle.''
When Young's predecessor as Sox pitching coach, John Farrell, left to become manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, his departure was viewed as a significant loss. Farrell was a physically imposing man with a big presence, and in addition to guiding Daisuke Matsuzaka's transition from Japan, he had made an unmistakable impact on the rising fortunes of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon while forming a strong bond with the leader of the staff, Beckett.
Young had come with a terrific coaching pedigree, having nurtured three generations of talented young pitchers in Oakland, one of whom, Dallas Braden, had thrown a perfect game against these very Rays last year. But any time there is change, there is always a question of how a team is going to react.
Consider those questions answered. Beckett is enjoying a renaissance at age 31, having mastered the cut fastball that he threw with decidedly mixed results last season. Lester leads the American League in wins and may claim that 20-victory season that eluded him last season. Buchholz continues to mature and develop. Papelbon is back to being a force as closer, and Bard remains one of the game's most lethal weapons.
Young has done more than simply stay out of the way, much more. But he lets the results speak for his work. And Beckett's performance Wednesday night would gladden the heart of any pitching coach.
Tampa Bay's only hit came on what Red Sox manager Terry Francona called "that little 3-iron out of the rough," a ball rolled down the third-base line by the No. 9 hitter in the Rays' order, the left-handed hitting Reid Brignac, who came into the game batting .170.
"It's unbelievable he hit that ball,'' said third baseman Kevin Youkilis, who was playing off the line and had no chance. "That pitch was in the dirt.''
That was the idea, Beckett said. "It was a changeup we were trying to bury. We buried it and he still hit it.
"It was a hit," added Beckett. "Doesn't matter who is playing over there. It doesn't matter how you draw it up. It's a hit. It wasn't a no-hitter. It wasn't a perfect game. It was a one-hitter.''
Beckett had set down the first eight Rays in order before Brignac reached first. Brignac then took second when Beckett bounced his attempted pick-off throw past first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Beckett would retire the last 19 Rays batters that followed Brignac. The Rays did not come close to another hit. They only squared up two balls all night, a line drive that B.J. Upton hit to center-fielder Jacoby Ellsbury to end the second, and a liner to first baseman Gonzalez by Ben Zobrist to start the seventh.
Beckett threw just 97 pitches, 68 for strikes. He threw 15 first-pitch strikes, and went to just three three-ball counts the entire night. He struck out Johnny Damon on a full count to end the third, struck out Upton on another full count for the second out of the fifth, and fell behind Matt Joyce 3-and-0 in the seventh before coming back to retire Joyce on a flyball.
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Beckett's pregame warmup in the bullpen had gone well, Young said, but it usually does. "He always warms up with a lot of intensity,'' he said. "He gets himself ready to make quality pitches.''
Damon said he realized early that Beckett was going to be a handful.
"Beckett established the strike zone from the very first pitch,'' the former Sox star said. "We were fortunate to get that hit. He was that good. I saw it in the first inning.''
Young could see it, too.
"You see it in the reaction you're getting from hitters,'' he said. "When you're getting grounders, jam shots, the number of strikes he's throwing, he's forcing early action.''
There was really no comparison to be made to the Braden perfecto, certainly not from a dramatic standpoint, not with the hit coming in the third inning.
"With the hit as early as it was, that thought goes away,'' Young said. "It more comes down to him keeping getting people out, and when you're in a nothing-nothing game like that, that brings out the best in Josh. He's going to outlast the other starting pitcher, and he definitely rises to the moment.''
Jeremy Hellickson, just turned 24, matched Beckett pitch for pitch for six innings. He, too, had allowed just one hit, a first-inning single by Dustin Pedroia, and had issued just one walk, to Ellsbury in the fourth. But Dustin Pedroia broke the spell with a one-out triple in the seventh, and after an intentional walk to Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis hit a three-run home run that was the difference-maker.
"He did go toe-to-toe, heavy gloves with Beckett and he did not flinch,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
But Beckett never wavered either. He threw his curveball sparingly, only eight in all, but the mix of his four-seam fastball, changeup and cutter proved an impossible combination for the Rays to crack.
Young offered a cogent explanation of why the cutter has restored Beckett back to elite status.
"It's a pitch that looks so much like a fastball that goes the other way,'' Young said. "Instead of sink or true, it cuts. Josh's is one of the firmer ones in the league, as close to his fastball as you see. His cutter is 90-91, his fastball is 93.
"When you have a fastball going both ways, with the changeup he's been throwing, it's a nice combination.''
Not perfect. But close. Gotta like that one, huh?
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
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