Beckett feeling right at home in Boston

Originally Published: April 21, 2006
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Maybe it's fate that Josh Beckett has come to this storied place, with its ghosts and its history, with its 24/7 adrenaline monsoon, with its fabled 37-foot left field wall.

All men have their time. But not everyone finds his place.

Starting pitcher
Boston Red Sox

Profile
CAREER STATISTICS
GM W L ERA K WHIP
109 44 34 3.39 619 1.23
And there is something about this place -- Fenway Park, Boston, the New England baseball repertory stage -- that feels as if it's been almost designed in the lab for this 25-year-old rocket launcher from Texas.

No matter how many years he pitches for the Red Sox, Beckett may never learn how to properly pronounce "Hah-vahd," or figure out how to safely navigate around a Boston rotary. But it's obvious he already understands something way more important about his new baseball homeland:

The magic of Fenway … and the fully enriched nuclear energy supply that is attached, free of charge, to all Red Sox paychecks.

For weeks, Beckett has been looking forward to playing in a place where he's been told they play "162 Green Bay Packer games a year." And now we're seeing why.

As he heads into his fourth start for the Red Sox -- Friday, in Toronto, against A.J. Burnett and the Blue Jays -- Beckett is off to the first 3-0 start of his life.

He is tied (with Jose Contreras) for the major league lead in ERA (1.29).

For the first time in his career -- all 106 starts worth (or 111 if you count the 2003 postseason) -- he has ripped off three straight starts of seven innings or more, one run allowed or none. (And no, he never did that in October '03.)

And it's just the second time in his career he has gotten this deep into a season without allowing a home run. (The other: last year.)

So there is something going on here. And it feels like more than just a hot start.

It feels like a guy who has long been billed as The Next Big Thing, who is now propelling himself into the prime of his career, right before our eyeballs.

"I'll tell you this," Curt Schilling says. "It's exciting being around this kid, because he has a chance to be special. And just being able to watch it has been as fun as anything."

Whether this would be happening in Florida, we'll never know. Beckett did, after all, go 4-1 with a 1.36 ERA last April, for a team that played in front of nearly 1.1 million empty seats last season (or about a million more than the Red Sox). So we would never underestimate the talent portion of this equation.

Still, it's more than that. Beckett figured out real fast that when you go from Florida to Boston, you are jumping on a whole new sort of roller coaster.

"I could see that just in spring training," he says. "Red Sox spring training games are like our [regular-season] games were with Florida. To have that many people yelling for you, every inning of a spring training game -- it was awesome."

But Fenway, of course, is Fort Myers squared. And while it never took a whole lot to get Beckett's motor revving, he has been one big fist-pumping, eyeball-flaming, gun-lighting, zero-cranking monster man from the moment he headed north.

"This guy," Schilling says with a laugh, "brings his own energy."

But when you combine that energy with the power plant around him, what you get is more than an ace, more than a scenic line on the old stat sheet. You get presence. You get a show -- almost in the way, one scout says, that Pedro Martinez was a show.

"He's got a classic power-pitcher personality," the scout says, "to go with power-pitcher stuff."

The funny thing is, lately, Beckett has actually been downplaying The Fenway Factor. About his most effusive admission so far is that "it's been pretty cool" to be doing what he's doing for this team, in this place.

The people who know him best, though, think this is a coincidence only in the way it's also a coincidence that nobody talks about the ball being juiced when Beckett, Schilling and Jonathan Papelbon are on the mound.

"I think Josh is the type of guy who does better when he knows he's going to be scrutinized," says Mike Lowell, who has been Beckett's teammate, in Florida and Boston, for six fascinating years now. "I don't know where that comes from. … But I know this: You can't be more scrutinized than he was in the World Series and playoffs in '03. And I think we saw how he responded to that -- by being that absolute dominating pitcher everyone always projected him to be."

Yeah, that October told the world a lot about Beckett. But not just about the laser beams that kept flashing out of his right arm.

It told us this was a guy who loved That Moment. And if he could feed off the madness of October, how much of a genius did we have to be to know that the old Fenway/AL East passion play would be his favorite brand of premium unleaded?

Before he ever threw a pitch for us," manager Terry Francona says, "everyone I ever talked to said pitching in Boston would just spur him on."

Yet here Beckett is, three years later -- a guy with his own World Series MVP trophy -- and he still talks as if he hasn't done much of anything, except to tease himself and the rest of the planet with freeze frames of what he could be.

When he is asked if there's something he can accomplish in Boston that he couldn't accomplish under the Miami palm trees, he doesn't mention anything you'd expect. Cy Youngs? Nope. Growing up to be Curt Schilling? Nope. Getting a Commonwealth Avenue saloon named after him? Nope.

"I hope," he says, "it's like 230 innings. I've got to get my innings in. I've got to get my quantity numbers up. The quality has been good. I just need that quantity."

And in reality, that might really be all he needs. That 2003 World Series looked as if it was going to be Beckett's launching pad. So think how much cash you could have won if you'd bet that, over the next two seasons, he'd win fewer games (24) than Cory Lidle, Mike Maroth or Rodrigo Lopez.

"You've got to understand that there's absolutely nothing he can't accomplish, whether it's been accomplished before or not. We always want to set limits on what guys can and can't do. But I don't see any number that's unreachable for him -- if he stays healthy."
--Curt Schilling

As usual, however, that had nothing to do with ability. Beckett did have a better strikeout rate than Schilling or Roger Clemens over those two years. And he allowed a lower on-base percentage than Roy Oswalt or Dontrelle Willis.

It was mostly about -- what else? -- health. He had more trips to the disabled list (five) than shutouts (two). And, once again, three of those DL visits were caused by blister attacks. (He's up to six career DL incarcerations because of blisters now, if you're scoring at your friendly neighborhood dermatologist's office.)

But beneath all that frustration, the evolution of Josh Beckett was roaring onward.

In Florida last year, the Marlins brought in veteran sage Al Leiter -- not just to spin cutters, but to serve as a mentor for Beckett, Willis and Burnett. And Leiter took a particular interest in Beckett, if only because Beckett was so interested in soaking in wisdom from any direction.

"What we talked about," Leiter says, "is that in the end, nobody cares how great your stuff looks. What your manager, your owner, your teammates care about is getting guys out and throwing up two runs in seven innings and being on the winning side.

"But what's always happened with Josh is, he'd get to a two-strike count, and you could see he didn't want to just get the guy out. He wanted to embarrass the guy. And I told him, 'You know what that does? It just gets you to 2-2, and 3-2, and then the guy fouls off a couple more, and in the end it just gets you eight more pitches.'

"I told him I was there myself at one time, back when I threw harder. And it didn't get me 20 wins. All it gets you is 5 1/3 and three runs and 125 pitches and a no-decision."

So Beckett began fiddling with a little two-seam fastball he could throw early in the count. Even though "it wasn't 95, it was 92," says Leiter, and "what it gets you is a little grounder to third base."

What that adjustment also helped deliver was the concept of saving your best smoke ball for when you really need it. So when you hear people gushing these days about Beckett's ability to reach back for a big pitch in a crisis, remember that until very recently, he didn't have another gear he could turbo into in those crises.

"If you're max-max all the time," Leiter says, "the only thing you can do is go down [in mph]. But if you add and subtract, and guys are seeing 93-92 most of the night, then, when you need to, you can go to 95-96, and it looks like 100. You see Josh do that now. But a couple of years ago, he wasn't thinking about going out and stroking nice, easy fastballs."

None of this, obviously, was We Interrupt "SportsCenter" material. But quietly, Beckett did take serious leaps -- to his first double-figure win season (15-8), to 29 starts (a career high) and to 178 2/3 innings (another career high) -- even though he had to cram it all around two more DL shutdowns.

And the next thing he knew, he was in Boston, where he felt the need to prove himself to a whole new universe. Whatever he might have proven in teal about his give-me-the-ball-and-I'll-do-the-rest dependability, "these guys don't know me," he said a couple of weeks ago.

"I think I proved that in Florida," he said. "I got that respect from my teammates and my manager. … But I haven't proved anything here. These guys don't even know what they're looking at."

Well, if they didn't then, they're sure catching on fast.

"I can't even relate to how good this guy is," Schilling says, "because when I was that age, I wasn't even close. At 25, I had four wins."

But at 26, Schilling's light bulb went on. So it's not surprising he sees a lot of himself in Beckett -- or that he and Beckett have gravitated toward each other in Boston.

Josh Beckett, left, and Curt Schilling
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonThe perfect 1-2 punch: Schilling (right) and Beckett have been all aces so far.
Start counting the in-game shots of the two of them leaning on the rail together, chewing over situations or just "talking about the stuff 5-year-olds talk about at recess," Schilling chuckles. And it's clear these two guys speak the same baseball-ese.

"I think he gets how big this thing is for me," Schilling says. "And how important this thing is for me. Every inning. Every out. Every pitch. How that affects him, I don't know. But he's very intelligent, and things don't get lost on him. If you're talking pitching and he thinks it will help, he'll use it."

If October in Yankee Stadium was the first chapter in The Josh Beckett Story, it's been a long wait for the rest of the saga. But one thing we keep noticing is that there is an incredible level of anticipation, even inside the sport, to watch that saga unfold.

It isn't just that there has been a buzz around this guy since he was 19 years old, and spinning six high school no-hitters, and charbroiling his way into the No. 2 slot in the '99 draft. It's that everyone who knows him seems to give the same scouting report.

"One thing I've always thought about Josh, even from the time he showed up for his first spring training [in 2000] with all the hype, is that he wants to be great," Lowell says. "I don't think he's one of those guys who says, 'I hope I'm a .500 pitcher because .500 pitchers make $6 million a year now.' He doesn't have that mentality. He truly wants to be great."

And greatness for him isn't one autumn evening in the Bronx, or one highlight-film October. It's about living up to every last ballyhoo that has ever been aimed at him.

"If he's healthy, he should go down, in the next 10 years, as the next Schilling, the next Clemens, the next Maddux," Leiter says. "Those 10 years take him from age 25 to 35. And if he takes care of himself, he'd still be young enough to keep going. And if he keeps going, he'll emerge as one of the top five best pitchers of modern times."

"You've got to understand," Schilling says, "that there's absolutely nothing he can't accomplish, whether it's been accomplished before or not. We always want to set limits on what guys can and can't do. But I don't see any number that's unreachable for him -- if he stays healthy."

If he stays healthy. If Beckett had five bucks for every time he'd heard that expression, he could buy his own franchise by now. And after nine DL stints in the last 48 months, not to mention a medical report that almost caused the Red Sox to back out of this trade, you could understand why.

So there's no mystery why he finds himself here, in the perfect place and time, talking about "quantity." Because when you're this good, it really is as simple as that.

"Look at his arm, his body, his age," Schilling says. "So there's only one thing that could stop him: health. But if he stays in Boston, with a franchise that's this committed to winning the World Series every season … and he just makes 30 starts for the next 10-12 years …

"Wow. Do the math."

Well, judging by the scene so far, the occupants of Fenway are doing that math. And they don't need a calculator to do it. A blood-pressure monitor would be more like it.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com