Let’s make something absolutely clear: Josh Beckett wasn’t his old, dominant, 2007 self in the Tuesday twilight at Fenway Park.
“I’ve seen him much, much better than that,” said Mariners batting coach Chris Chambliss, after Beckett blanked his hitters for seven innings in Boston’s 5-0 win. “He threw a good game. What can I say? I’ve seen (his stuff) a lot better, but that’s not to take anything away from him.
“The adjectives don’t matter. It’s the numbers that count. You don’t score, you don’t score. It’s still the same result, whether it’s dominant or not dominant.”
Chambliss is a veteran appraiser of Red Sox pitching, having spent six seasons with the Yankees. He was standing on second base when Bucky Dent’s home run went over the Green Monster on Oct. 2, 1978. And Beckett corroborated Chambliss’ assessment, saying he survived on “guile” through the final three innings.
Beckett turned 32 Tuesday, further underscoring the point that he’s not the Cy Young Award contender he was during his late 20s. But does he have a chance to be a solid No. 2 starter this season? Based on Tuesday’s performance, the answer is yes.
Actually, Beckett was having a decent season before he helped the (surging!) Red Sox wrap up their fifth straight victory. His superficial stats aren’t inspiring: 3-4 record, 4.97 ERA. But take a closer look. He has five quality starts among seven outings this season, tied with Jon Lester for the team lead. When play began Tuesday, only 20 American League pitchers had at least five quality starts (six or more innings, three or fewer earned runs). Now Beckett is among them. How awful could he be?
Oh, right. I forgot.
Beckett was foolish to (a) hit the links when he was supposedly too injured to pitch and (b) refuse to apologize for doing so. He should understand that much — even if he won’t admit it — after hearing boos from the Fenway faithful after last Thursday’s flop against the Cleveland Indians.
But Beckett was right when he said last week those jeers were related to baseball, not golf. We know that for certain now. Five days later, in the same stadium, Beckett heard encouragement and applause. The only difference was his performance.
This time, at least, fan fickleness worked in his favor.
But Beckett isn’t the type to give the public (or media) credit for adding to his motivation. He’s stubborn that way. When I asked Beckett how gratifying it was to perform well amid the focus on him over the last week, he said, “It’s nice. These guys have been playing their butt off all year. It’s nice to just keep them in the game and get a win.”
Beckett said he didn’t carry additional focus or motivation into the start. He did mention that his family was supportive during the tumultuous week. “I heard from some other baseball guys,” he added. “It’s been nice.” But that was it. No talk of vindication, validation or revenge.
Just one well-pitched game.
“He had a great presence all week,” manager Bobby Valentine observed. “David Ortiz whispered in my ear and said, ‘Watch him pitch today.’ There was something there. He belongs on that hill. He looked very comfortable.”
What was different between the starts? Well, for one thing, it wasn’t the velocity. Beckett’s four-seam fastball ranged from 91 to 93 mph in the early innings — just as it had against Cleveland — before it lost steam near the end. The overall approach was similar, too, as Beckett threw many of his fastballs away. He didn’t intimidate by pounding the ball inside, as he would have in years gone by.
Instead, the differences were subtle. His fingers were on top of the ball, which added sinking action. His changeup and curveball generated swings and misses. His overall location was better. Judging by the results — four hits, all singles — it didn’t appear Beckett tipped his pitches, as Valentine feared he had done in the Cleveland start. “I wish I would have heard that,” quipped Seattle outfielder Michael Saunders, who went 1-for-3.
Let’s be honest: Beckett was facing the right team. The Mariners have an on-base percentage of .287, and I wonder sometimes how the number is that high. Seattle manager Eric Wedge played the percentages by stacking eight left-handed hitters in his lineup, but many were short on experience, power or both.
Even as Beckett outsmarted the young Mariners hitters, he had a few anxious moments. Justin Smoak hit what looked like a towering home run around the Pesky Pole, but the umpires didn’t overturn their initial foul call on video review. (“We were jumping up and down in the dugout,” Saunders said. “I couldn’t believe it.”) In the fifth, Saunders sent a rope down the right-field line that veered just foul. Kyle Seager’s bid for a three-run homer died on the warning track in the deepest recess of right field.
“He’s been around, he’s had success, and he’s had success for a reason: He’s got good stuff,” Saunders said of Beckett. “At the same time, you look at the box score and I don’t think it does our team justice. We hit a lot of balls on the nose and didn’t have much to show for it.”
Yet, to the extent that Beckett needed to (a) rebuild goodwill with the locals, (b) demonstrate the wherewithal to retire big league hitters and (c) win, the day was an unqualified success.
The Red Sox don’t have the 27-year-old Beckett anymore. But after one day, the 32-year-old version looks OK.