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October 19, 2007

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Game Five Report

by John Perrotto

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CLEVELAND-Anyone with the most basic understanding of sabermetrics knows 65 2/3 innings is a relatively small sample of any established pitcher's career. That's what constitutes Josh Beckett's body of post-season work during his seven-year career. Yet, sample size be damned, the hard-throwing right-hander continues to put himself among the all-time October greats with a postseason to remember.

Beckett was dominant once again Thursday night, as he allowed the Red Sox to live to see at least one more day by pitching them to a 7-1 win over the Cleveland Indians in Game Five of the American League Championship Series at Jacobs Field. The Indians still lead the best-of-seven series three games to two, but it now shifts back to Boston on Saturday night for Game Six, with a possible Game Seven set for Sunday night.

During his eight innings, Beckett held the Indians to one run, scored on Travis Hafner's double-play grounder in the first inning. The man with the growing reputation as a money pitcher scattered five hits, walked only one and struck out 11. He also threw 74 of his 109 pitches for strikes. All of this after he complained of some mild stiffness in the back of his pitching should following his win in Game One.

About the only thing Beckett did wrong was inadvertently drop an f-bomb during his postgame news conference that happened to go out on live cable television from coast-to-coast and around the world. His performance was so outstanding that it caused Red Sox DH David Ortiz to use another 12-letter, not-ready-for-network-TV word to describe him. "He's a bad (expletive deleted)," Ortiz said. "You saw what he did. He dominated. He shut them down. He kept making one great pitch after another and threw strikes all night. That's about as impressive a game as you'll see a guy pitch."

That's saying something, because Beckett has also been outstanding in his other two starts during this postseason. He shut out the Angels on four hits in Game One of the Red Sox's ALDS sweep, then held the Indians to two runs and two hits in six innings in Boston's 11-3 rout in Game One of the ALCS. Add it all up and Beckett's line this postseason is 23 11 3 3 1 26.

Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield has been around for all of the Red Sox' run of seven postseason appearances in the last 13 years. He watched Pedro Martinez dominate in multiple Octobers, and he also had a dugout view of the Bloody Sock drama of 2004. when Curt Schilling kept having the loose tendon in his ankle sutured so he could take the mound in helping the Red Sox to their first World Series title in 86 years.

After all that, Wakefield could only watch in amazement Thursday night, two nights after getting tagged for five runs in 4 2/3 innings by the Indians, as Beckett tore through the Cleveland lineup. "You're not surprised by anything he does because he has such great stuff," Wakefield said. "He is capable of dominating any time it's his turn to pitch. Still, what he has done in this postseason is amazing. He's won both Game Ones for us, and that is always big because you want to always start off by getting that first game in the win column. This was his biggest game yet. If we lose, it's over. The whole season was riding on him and he was great. That's a lot of pressure on a guy but he handled it like it was nothing."

Four years after his shutting out he Yankees in Game Six of the 2003 World Series, Beckett is back in the postseason for a second time and building on his October resume. He is now 5-2 with a 1.78 ERA in nine games, eight starts, allowing just 34 hits in 65 2/3 innings while striking out 73 and walking 13. "He's proven he likes the big stage," Sox catcher Jason Varitek said with a smile. "The thing about Josh is that nothing really fazes him. He has so much confidence. He never thinks he is going to get beat."

The only time Beckett came close to coming unglued was in the fifth inning, when the Red Sox were clinging to a 2-1 lead. Kenny Lofton led off the inning and took a pitch that home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom called a strike. However, Lofton thought it was ball four, and dropped his bat and took a step toward first before Cederstrom called him back. That clearly got Beckett rankled. When Lofton flied out to left field on the next pitch, Beckett yelled at the veteran left fielder as he jogged down the first base line. Lofton then ran toward Beckett, causing both dugouts and bullpens to empty, though per usual nothing happened but an exchange of trash talk.

Then Casey Blake and Gardy Sizemore hit back-to-back singles with two outs in the inning but Beckett struck out Asdrubal Cabrera to end the threat. That turned out to be all for the Indians, as Beckett retired nine of the last 10 batters he faced, his only mistake coming when he flubbed Lofton's comebacker for an error in the eighth.

Beckett's talent has never been in question since he first reached the major leagues as a 21-year-old with the Marlins in 2001, but durability has been another matter. He never pitched more than 178 2/3 innings in his five season with Florida because of chronic blister problems, and that is why some thought it was a risk when Jed Hoyer and Ben Cherington-then operating as the organization's co-GMs while Theo Epstein took his two-month self-imposed exile-traded away shortstop überprospect Hanley Ramirez and three pitching prospects for Beckett in November, 2005.

However, Beckett silenced those concerns by pitching 204 2/3 innings with the Red Sox in his Boston debut season in 2006, and his total this season is at 223 2/3 after last night's win. Beckett's progressive splits throughout the regular season show that he loses no effectiveness as he gets later into games, as his OPS allowed was 703 on pitches 1-25, 627 on pitches 26-50, 673 on pitches 51-75, 660 on pitches 76-100, and 626 on pitches 101 and beyond.

"I don't think people give Josh credit for how strong he is," Varitek said of the wiry 6-foot-5, 222-pounder. "He's kind of animal-type strong. He puts in a lot of maintenance work over the course of the season, and you can see it paying off now. He's as strong now as he was at the start of the season and he was as strong in the eighth inning tonight as he was in the first."

While Beckett was shutting down the Indians, the Red Sox widened the gap in the late innings. Youkilis had hit a solo home run off Sabathia in the first inning to open the scoring, and Manny Ramirez's single off the top of the right-center field fence-which the Red Sox claimed should have been a home run-scored Ortiz all the way from first base with the tie-breaking run in the third. They then scored twice more off starter and loser C.C. Sabathia in the seventh, and three more times against lefty reliever Rafael Perez in the eighth to push their lead to 7-1.

Perhaps no pitcher in baseball is more solidly built than Sabathia, who stands 6-foot-7 and weighs 290 (at least). However, Sabathia ran out of gas when he was sent back out for the seventh inning with the Indians trailing only 2-1. Dustin Pedroia led off with a double and Youkilis tripled to make it 3-1 and chase the big lefty. Youkilis then scored on Ortiz's sacrifice fly off of Rafael Betancourt to make it 4-0. Ortiz would go on to add another sacrifice fly in the eighth, when the other runs scored on Victor Martinez's passed ball and a bases-loaded walk to Youkilis by Tom Mastny.

By leaving Sabathia in for the seventh after he had already thrown 106 pitches, Indians manager Eric Wedge left himself open to second-guessing, especially with Betancourt ready to pitch; Betancourt's 6.845 WXRL was second in the major leagues to Seattle's J.J. Putz in the regular season. But Wedge was unapologetic: "We had a couple of decisions to make there. One, C.C. pitched probably about as well as he had all night in the prior inning, and he was pretty efficient (throwing 13 pitches while retiring the side in order in the sixth). If you go straight to Betancourt, you're talking about him throwing two innings, and that was something I wasn't interested in because it weakens us (for Games Six and Seven)."

However, the move backfired on Wedge, especially as the Indians' hitters did nothing against Beckett to take the heat off of their manager. "Beckett was good, but where my disappointment lay was lack of adjustments by the hitters," Wedge said. "We just saw him five days ago but we were in between all night long. When you've got somebody against you like that with that type of stuff, you can't live in between. You've got to take some chances and get after it, and we never did."

Thus, the Indians missed a chance to clinch their first postseason series at home since beating the Brooklyn Dodgers in Game Seven of the 1920 World Series at League Park. The Red Sox, meanwhile, kept alive their chances of digging back up out of their hole in the series. As the Sox's October ace noted, "We're not where we want to be yet but we're inching a little closer."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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