Big game hunter
Beckett makes opening statement with historic gem
Posted: Wednesday October 3, 2007 11:26PM; Updated: Thursday October 4, 2007 12:59PM
BOSTON -- To understand the difficulty of what Red Sox ace Josh Beckett did Wednesday night at Fenway Park, first you have to know that his was the 124th shutout in the 104 years of postseason play. Not bad. Beckett has three of those 124 shutouts himself; only the great Christy Mathewson, with four, ever threw more. Even better.
But what you really need to know is how many times in those 124 postseason shutouts the pitcher allowed no walks and no extra-base hits while striking out as many as eight batters. I'll give you the entire list here:
1. Josh Beckett, Boston, 4-0, Game 1, ALDS over Los Angeles.
No, it wasn't Don Larsen. But in its own way, it was a supremely unique night. Now you might appreciate what Beckett did to the Angels: No runs, no walks, no extra-base hits. No chance.
Beckett just might have set the tone for this series, if not for all of October. The Red Sox, given Game 1 and Beckett's postseason pedigree -- three shutouts in six starts with a 1.74 ERA -- have themselves a legit big-game ace. Take all the pitchers in this postseason and Beckett should be your first pick to start a big game -- like John Smoltz in the 1990s, a power pitcher in his youthful prime with the notches already on his belt.
"I know he doesn't fear the situation," Boston third baseman Mike Lowell said. "From Day One when he was a rookie with the Marlins, he was a guy who wanted to be great. He didn't want to be just pretty good. He wants to be the best player on the field when he takes the ball. That's something you absolutely want from your ace."
A small disclaimer is in order here: the Angels can't hit outside of Los Angeles and the pop-gun lineup they offered up at Beckett included far too little power for an American League playoff game. Their starting outfield hit 19 home runs combined all year. Their cleanup hitter, Garret Anderson (.194 with runners in scoring position and two outs) doesn't force anybody to throw strikes to Vladimir Guerrero. Their No. 5 hitter, Macier Izturis, hit six home runs and had batted in that slot only 18 times all year. There is little indication that they will fair much better in Game 2 against Daisuke Matsuzaka, whose tendency to lose the plate at times is less of a factor against such an aggressive-swinging team.
Take nothing away from Beckett, though. He always did have the stuff -- against the Angels he was flipping in curveballs at will and humming two-seamers at the knees at 96 mph and, according to center fielder Coco Crisp, missing location just once with his 108 pitches. He threw 25 balls to 31 batters.
But what Beckett has now that he didn't have even in 2003, when he put his brand on that postseason with a World Series-clinching shutout at Yankee Stadium, is the mound presence of a veteran. He rarely leaves the dirt circle of the mound any more. He has controlled his emotions on the field as well as he has controlled his stuff.
"It's maturity," manager Terry Francona said. "He's different this year even from last year. Part of that is he's really connected with [pitching coach] John Farrell. This guy is as strong as a horse. I tell Clay Buchholz and the younger pitchers, 'Hang around Beckett.' Nobody works harder. His side sessions are amazing. It's like he can throw the ball through a wall.
"He pushes himself so hard and expects so much. I'll tell you what he does: he'll come in after the first inning and find a reason to get himself pumped up. Tonight he said, 'That first pitch, it was a strike, right there,' or something like that. Just something to make himself keep pushing."
Midway through last season, Beckett was struggling with an ERA around five, with people wondering about his switch to the big, bad American League. And it was right at that time that the Red Sox looked at this 26-year-old right-hander, put faith in his bulldog work ethic, and handed him a three-year, $30 million contract extension that, with an option year, can work out to $42 million over four years.
How did that work out? If not for that extension, Beckett would be a free agent next month, negotiating off more wins over the past three years (51) than any pitcher in baseball. The Red Sox got themselves a $19 million-a-year pitcher in this market for Carl Pavano money.
Game 1 simply added to the wisdom of the investment. It was a game for the ages. Better still for Boston, there may yet be more to come.