October is Beckett's time of year
Red Sox ace at ease and at his best when fall rolls around
BOSTON -- We may be looking at a small sample size, but Josh Beckett appears to be well on his way to the classic designation -- Mr. October.
What he did as the winning pitcher on Friday night in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series was very impressive, but it was more of the same from him.
At the tender age of 23, Beckett was already a World Series MVP, leading the 2003 Florida Marlins over the New York Yankees. He stopped the Yankees cold in Game 6, pitching on short rest. That was Beckett's first World Series, and, when you think about it, the Yankees' last.
The fact that Beckett was not immediately able to build on that legend-in-the-making was due to several factors. The hard-throwing right-hander landed on the disabled list several times with blister problems, and the 2004 and '05 Marlins contended in the National League Wild Card races into September before falling off the pace. Beckett found himself as part of Florida's dismantling after the 2005 season. The Red Sox didn't get him to the postseason in 2006, either.
But now, he is back in October, and back on top. Some guys have it this time of year and some don't. Josh Beckett is solidly in the former group.
Friday night, Beckett was featured in what appeared to be one of those October classics: a battle of aces, a battle of the leading Cy Young Award candidates; Beckett for the Sox, the imposing C.C. Sabathia for the Cleveland Indians.
This was a matchup fully worthy of the opener of an ALCS, but it became a one-way street. Beckett did his bit, but Sabathia was not anywhere near his best. The Red Sox turned a momentary lapse of control into four runs in the third, and the way Beckett was pitching, this one was headed in Boston's direction early and often. Another Boston outburst in the fifth only turned a victory toward a 10-3 rout, and it eventually allowed the Sox to pull Beckett after six innings and just 80 pitches, meaning that he will be far from overtaxed going into his next postseason assignment.
Beckett had already staged a suitable encore to his 2003 work, with his start in the Division Series against the Angels. That was a four-hit shutout. When you consider that his last postseason start prior to that had been a five-hit shutout of the Yankees, this all might be something much more than historical coincidence.
That was his third postseason shutout. (He also shut out the Chicago Cubs in the 2003 NL Championship Series.) Despite the fact that Becket has only seven postseason starts, he is tied for third on the all-time postseason shutout list with Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown and Whitey Ford. Christy Mathewson leads this category with four shutouts. The way Beckett is going, another shutout seems to be largely a matter of time.
Beckett didn't shut out the Indians on Friday night, but he did get the victory and he did control the game and he did set a tone for the Red Sox. There is no substitute for an ace pitching like an ace in Game 1 of a postseason series. Josh Beckett seems to be the man for this particular job.
He gave up two runs on four hits, allowed no walks and struck out seven. For this postseason, he has an ERA of 1.20, with eight hits, no walks and 15 strikeouts in 15 innings. These are numbers generally to be hoped for rather than expected, but this seems to be Josh Beckett's postseason level.
Reasonable people can agree that Beckett, the Majors' only 20-game winner this season, is a more mature and complete pitcher than he was in 2003. But he was already dominant in the postseason even then. When he was asked how much benefit there was in the Red Sox's pitching staff having playoff experience, he responded:
"I don't know. I mean, I didn't have any in '03 and I did pretty good."
Beckett does not lack for self-confidence, which may be part of the reason the postseason glare doesn't exactly intimidate him. Maybe another part is that he doesn't make these starts into something otherworldly. When he was asked about his consistent postseason success after Friday night's victory, he replied:
"I'm just out there trying to execute pitches. You know, there's a lot of media and stuff that goes into this thing, and if you start buying into all that, all it does is create distractions.
"I think for us right now, we're just trying to stay away from distractions that some exterior thing might present. I think we're just out there trying to play good baseball, and for me it's just executing pitches."
That is completely understandable, although it tends to reduce the magnificent to the routine. But the rest of the Red Sox were not downplaying Beckett's performance in any way. They knew exactly what it meant to them.
"He gave us just what we needed," manager Terry Francona said. "I thought, not looking at the line score, but I thought every inning, he went out ... I don't think 'struggle' is the right word, but that first hitter of each inning he had to kind of refine himself every inning, and once he did, he got in the flow of every inning and he was very good.
"When you're facing a guy like C.C. or tomorrow like [Fausto] Carmona, you'd better have somebody you believe in, and we do, because you're going to have to beat really good pitchers to keep moving on. We know that. I thought tonight we did a good job."
"We've needed to lean on him all year long in some big games," third baseman Mike Lowell said of Beckett. "And he's come through for us.
"I think this year, especially the second time around in the American League, he's gotten together with [catcher Jason Varitek] and has done a great job of forming a game plan. And the game plan is one thing, but the execution is another thing. And I think he's been tremendously efficient and consistent following that game plan, no matter what team it is."
No matter what team it is in the postseason, from the Cubs and the Yankees in 2003 to the Angels and the Indians in 2007, Josh Beckett has performed like an ace. Winning 20 games in the regular season is a certain mark of pitching achievement, but these triumphant performances in the postseason are the stuff of legend. Josh Beckett still has work to do this October, but the record says he is precisely the man you want doing that work.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.