Beckett keeps adding to his October legend
BOSTON -- He can test your bat speed with a 95 mph fastball or give you a dose of oblique-straining humility with that 76 mph curve. He'll beat you in warm weather or cold, amid wind or shadows, in a tight game or a laugher, on TBS or Fox.
Beckett didn't make history Friday night, but he did add another conquest to a legacy that's in the early stages of Smoltzian. Maybe the long commercial breaks will eventually get to him, or he'll lose his concentration with a big lead. There aren't too many other scenarios that give opponents much reason to feel hopeful.
Game 1 of the American League Championship Series was billed as a matchup of Cy Young Award candidates, but one ace showed and the other flopped. Here was Beckett, spinning six innings of four-hit mastery before retiring for the evening. There was Cleveland's C.C. Sabathia turning in his second straight subpar start and looking as if those 250-plus innings have taken a toll, regardless of what Indians manager Eric Wedge says.
And there were the Red Sox, banging out 12 hits on the way to a 10-3 victory at Fenway Park. They were so dominant, even Eric Gagne couldn't kill the mood.
There was a lot of talk after the game about David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez reaching base 10 straight times out of the Nos. 3-4 spots in the order, but as managers like Terry Francona and Joe Torre will tell you, it all begins with starting pitching.
And right now no one is more dominant than Beckett. In two postseason outings, he's 2-0 with a 1.20 ERA. His stat line includes 15 strikeouts and no walks, and only eight hits allowed in 15 innings.
"He'll probably tell you he should have done better," said Boston first baseman Kevin Youkilis. "He gets on himself about every little thing. If he doesn't throw a perfect game, he's mad. But at the end of the day, I think he'll be happy with this one."
Beckett had a lot of hype to live up to entering the ALCS. He earned a reputation as a postseason master with Florida in 2003, and enhanced it in the Division Series against the Angels -- throwing the third complete-game shutout of his career, which tied Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown and Whitey Ford for second most in the postseason behind Christy Mathewson, who's tops with four.
Beckett allowed a solo homer to Travis Hafner in the first inning, then retired 10 straight Indians before hitting Ryan Garko in the arm with a fastball leading off the fifth. The TV cameras captured Beckett feverishly chomping a stick of gum while doing a mind-meld with catcher Jason Varitek. Beckett is so focused, so locked in on the business at hand, it's as if he's oblivious to the stakes and his surroundings.
"I'm just out there trying to execute pitches," Beckett said. "There's a lot of media and stuff that goes into this thing, and if you start buying into that, all it does is create distractions."
After a challenging transition to the American League in 2006, Beckett was a different pitcher this season. He reduced his total of home runs allowed from 36 to 17, raised his strikeouts from 158 to 194 and cut his walks from 74 to 40. The commonly-accepted explanation is that he's less stubborn now at age 27, and willing to take something off the ball in tight spots rather than try to throw it harder.
No plate appearance embodied that mind-set more than Beckett's confrontation with right fielder Franklin Gutierrez in the fifth. Beckett threw one fastball and seven curves before striking out Gutierrez to end the inning.
"That pitch is huge for him all the time," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "When guys are moving their heads out of the way and it's still a strike, that's a good sign."
The Indians can only wish Sabathia was that sharp. In the first inning, Pedroia hit a liner through the box that Sabathia snagged in self-defense. Then Youkilis, Ortiz and Ramirez hit consecutive singles to center field to tie the game 1-1.
This was a recurrent theme among the Boston hitters: Wait on Sabathia and take him up the middle or the opposite way. And Sabathia had enough difficulty locating his slider and changeup, the Red Sox weren't in many disadvantageous counts.
"I thought our approach was really, really professional," said Boston manager Terry Francona. "We didn't pull the ball -- we didn't even try to pull the ball. We kind of took what he gave us and didn't expand the zone. If you do, he's going to make short work of you."
When Sabathia departed, he'd thrown a whopping 41 balls in 85 pitches. Contrast that with Beckett's breakdown (80 pitches, 53 strikes) and you can see why the Red Sox have the early edge in the series.
"This year in certain situations I pretty much decided that my stuff is good enough," Beckett said. "I'm going to trust it and I'm not going to try to make the perfect pitch. But a good pitch is sometimes what you need."
Beckett's performance Friday night might not have been great by his standards. But then, his standards are higher than everybody else's right now. Who cares if he's happy or satisfied with the results? As long as he's dealing, that's more than enough for the Red Sox.Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.