10/12/2003 2:51 PM ET
Matchup: Lofton vs. Beckett
MIAMI -- Before Sunday, the Cubs had scored in every first inning of the National League Championship Series. Kenny Lofton had gotten on base, and gone on to score, in three of the first four games. In one other game, the Chicago leadoff man got on and scored in the second inning.
By Mathew Leach / MLB.com
In Sunday's fifth game, however, there was nothing of the kind. Lofton didn't get on base once. The Cubs didn't score early, middle or late. And Josh Beckett was never in trouble as he cruised to a shutout.
In a matchup of two young, emotional pitchers, a swing of a couple of early runs can make an enormous difference. The Cubs were hoping to stake Carlos Zambrano to a lead, perhaps settling him down and leading to the kind of performance they grew used to for much of this year. If Beckett had been in early trouble, he might have had a hard time staying in control and giving his team the quality start it needed.
Remarkably, one single at-bat had the potential turn a season for two teams that have played a combined 341 games since the end of March.
It may have done so, but not in the way you might have thought.
Lofton took the game's first pitch for a ball, high and outside -- just where you might expect an overanxious young pitcher to miss. Then Beckett came back with a nasty fastball down and on the outside corner, Lofton showed bunt, and it went for a called strike. Lofton swung at a breaking pitch, then swung at an outside fastball. Gone. And Beckett was on his way.
When asked about his approach to Beckett, Lofton simply said, "See the ball, hit the ball."
But with a shadowy late-afternoon start time, it was tough to do the former. And with Beckett simply dealing, it was even tougher to do the latter.
Once Beckett retired Lofton, his next assignment was the struggling Mark Grudzielanek. Then it was a two-outs, nobody-on situation for Sammy Sosa -- exactly the way you want to face Slammin' Sammy. That is, if you have to face him at all.
Sosa, like Grudzielanek, grounded out. And Beckett was on his way. Once he got over that first-inning hurdle that has tripped up both him and his cohorts, he blew by the Cubs.
Lofton did manage to be one of the few Cubs to hit a ball to the outfield when he flied out to center in the sixth. But he had no answer for Beckett, nor did his teammates.
"He just threw the ball well today," Lofton said. "You've got to give the guy credit."
It was all the more impressive because Beckett has never pitched in anything like an LCS elimination game before. He's still all of 23 years old. Trouble has a tendency to spiral for him. A good start is more critical for him than for a more experienced, less volatile pitcher.
He got that good start, and once he settled in, he rolled.
"He's pitched with a lot of poise, and he has a lot of self-confidence, the young man does," said manager Jack McKeon. "He's a good pitcher, and he has outstanding stuff.
"I like his attitude, and he's learning and maturing and staying focused, trying to pick up something new each day."
Like surviving the perilous first inning in an elimination game.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.