BOSTON–The champagne and beer had yet to dry on the plastic covering the lockers in the Red Sox‘ cramped clubhouse at ancient Fenway Park when an interloper who had apparently drunk either some bubbly, brewskis, or a combination of both posed a question to Terry Francona.
“Who’s the better team, the Rockies or the Red Sox?” the inquisitor asked the Red Sox manager about an hour after Boston won its second pennant in four years by beating the Cleveland Indians 11-2 in Game Seven of the ALCS Sunday night. Francona rolled his eyes and said, “I’ll get right on that one,” then turned his attention back to the half-dozen reporters he was chatting with and said, “I know this much–we’re as good as any team in baseball when Josh Beckett is on the mound–and he’s pitching Game One.”
Beckett will get the ball for the opener of the World Series against the Colorado Rockies and Jeff Francis on Wednesday night at Fenway Park. The decision to use Beckett in game one was made easy because Francona didn’t have to call on him to make an appearance out of the bullpen during Game Seven. The manager was tempted to go to his ace, going so far as to have him warm up in the fifth inning when starter Daisuke Matsuzaka began to fade. However, Dice-K made it through the fifth, and Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon finished with two scoreless innings each. “Josh was ready if needed and I wouldn’t have hesitated to use him,” Francona said. “Our season was on the line, so he was available, but it really couldn’t have worked out any better that he never got into the game.”
By not using Beckett, Francona negated much of whatever advantage the Rockies might have gained by sweeping the Arizona Diamondbacks in four games in the National League Championship Series, which gave them six more days of rest than the Red Sox for the World Series. While the Rockies have their rotation lined up, the Red Sox have theirs lined up as well.
“Who else would you want out there for Game One than Josh?” said Red Sox right-hander Curt Schilling, winner of 10 postseason games in his career. “He’s a great, great pitcher, but he really seems to find another gear in October. He is really something special. What he has done in October has been truly amazing. You’re talking the stuff of legends.”
Beckett might not yet be a legend the way Schilling is for his bloody sock while helping the Sox win their first World Series title in 86 years, but he is certainly getting close after adding the ALCS MVP trophy for his 2-0 record and 1.93 ERA in two starts against the Indians. Beckett gave up three runs in 14 innings while walking only one batter and striking out 18. Though Beckett has pitched in only one other postseason, helping the Marlins to an improbable World Series title in 2003, he has put together some incredible statistics, starting off with his throwing three shutouts in eight starts. In all, he’s 5-0 with a 1.78 ERA in the postseason, and has allowed only 34 hits in 65 2/3 innings with 73 strikeouts and 13 walks.
While Beckett led the AL with 20 wins in the regular season, it would be a stretch to say he was the league’s best pitcher; he finished eighth in the AL in SNLVAR. However, Beckett has won seven head-to-head matchups with pitchers among the top 21 in the league in SNLVAR since September 4th, beating Toronto’s Roy Halladay (third), New York’s Chien-Ming Wang (10th), Tampa Bay’s Scott Kazmir (15th), and Baltimore’s Jeremy Guthrie (21st) in the regular season, then defeating Lackey in the ALDS and Cleveland’s C.C. Sabathia (fourth) in the ALCS twice.
Everyone seems to have a different theory as to why the 27-year-old Beckett comes up big in big games despite his relative youth and lack of postseason experience. Beckett thinks it is because of his ability to adapt and his willingness to win. “Don Sutton used to tell me every time you go out there, you’re going to be a different pitcher. So throughout the course of a year, you can be between 30 and 35 guys,” Beckett said, referring to the Hall of Fame pitcher. “If you’re going to get me, generally the first inning is the time, because I’m still trying to figure out who I am that day. And whether it be Chien-Ming Wang or C.C. Sabathia or whoever, nobody wants it more than me. When I’m out there, I feel like all the guys are behind me and that we’re better than everybody else.”
“Maturity is the biggest thing with Josh,” knuckleballer Tim Wakefield said. “He has such a great approach to each start. He’s got great stuff, which helps, but he follows the game plan and he trusts Tek (catcher Jason Varitek) and his knowledge of the hitters.”
“He’s not a guy who is coming into the dugout and high-fiving people and shaking hands after every inning,” Schilling added. “He is basically in a world of his own until he’s done pitching. He doesn’t let anything distract him. He’s completely locked in to winning the game.”
That made Beckett’s trip to the bullpen for Game Seven on Sunday night that much more interesting–he had no idea how to conduct himself as a temporary relief pitcher. One minute he was stretching, and the next he was playing catch. “He was like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs,” Red Sox reliever Mike Timlin cracked.
In the end, though, Beckett was celebrating with the rest of the Red Sox. Now, he is in position to continue his postseason magic for one more series. “I’m looking forward to getting the chance to win another ring,” Beckett said. “I had a lot of fun in 2003 getting one with the Marlins, and I’d like to do it again.”