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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Mismatch made in heaven

Northeastern gets a whiff, and is simply awestruck

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Imagine. You play college baseball in Boston. You spent the winter hitting in poorly lit indoor cages with poor backgrounds. Finally, you get to play outside for the first time and you step in to face . . .

Josh Beckett -- a man who shut out the New York Yankees in Yankee Stadium in the clinching game of the 2003 World Series when he was only 23 years old.

It's just not fair.

"In basketball this would be like Dustin Pedroia going up against Shaquille O'Neal," said veteran reliever Brendan Donnelly.

Beckett faced seven pasty-white Northeastern University batters at City of Palms Park yesterday and only two put the ball in play. Center fielder David Gustafson blooped a single to right on the first pitch of the game and DH Frank Pesanello grounded to first. The other five Northeastern hitters -- solid players all -- looked like Pedroia posting up the Diesel.

A similar scene will take place tonight when the Boston College Eagles step in to take their hacks against Daisuke Matsuzaka, who may or may not be the greatest pitcher who ever lived.

Just not fair.

This is a nice reminder of how hard it is to make it to the major leagues. It's a demonstration of the great baseball food chain: something that's easy to forget until we see a good Division 1 college hitter stepping in against a Josh Beckett.

"The guys I played with in rookie ball, the worst players, were 100 times better than anybody I ever played with in high school," said 40-year-old Curt Schilling. "When I signed, I was told that 1 out of every 10,000 kids that plays baseball gets drafted. One out of every 100,000 kids that play baseball make it to the big leagues. Something like that."

Donnelly toiled in the minors for more than 10 years before getting his first taste of the big leagues. He knows that every man with a big league locker represents thousands who played the game but were not good enough to advance.

"The math has all been done," said Donnelly. "Little League. High school. College. Then minors. There's a lot of players in the minor leagues that could play in the big leagues, but never get a chance. Once you get there, it's about getting a shot. When you get the shot, you've got to make the most of it. You might not get another one."

"Baseball's the one sport that everybody played," added Schilling. "That's why we have so many hecklers in our sport. If I had a dollar for every guy who told me, 'Oh, yeah, I was going to turn pro, but I hurt my arm,' I'd have more money than I have now."

Veterans of the Northeastern varsity team won't have delusions when they look back at their baseball careers. Yesterday they had a chance to see major league-caliber pitching, up close and personal.

"It's an unbelievable experience," said senior captain Dan Milano, who struck out (swinging) against Beckett. "You have no time to react when you face a guy like that at this level."

Gustafson, a redshirt freshman, enjoyed the thrill of a lifetime when he dumped a single over the second baseman's head on the first pitch of the game.

"I grew up in Texas and watched Josh Beckett," he said. "I know he likes to throw first-pitch fastball, so I was guessing all the way. I would have looked pretty foolish if he dropped a curve in there. Youk [Kevin Youkilis] congratulated me when I got to first base."

After Gustafson's hit, Mike Lyon, Mike Tamsin, and Milano all struck out. Lyon had the misfortune of an 0-and-2 count and his knees buckled as he watched strike three cross the plate. Tamsin fouled off the first two pitches. Then Beckett went up the ladder and the big left fielder swung and missed.

"He tends to be filthy," said Tamsin, who hit .353 with 34 RBIs as a freshman.

All three of Beckett's first-inning victims were shaking their heads in amazement when they walked back to the dugout.

In the second inning, first baseman/captain Josh Porter took a breaking ball for strike three. Pesanello grounded a foul ball outside the third base line, then went out on a grounder to first. The last batter to face Beckett was right fielder Frank Compagnone. He took two strikes, then swung and missed at a ball up around his eyes.

"He gassed it up pretty good on us," said Milano, a veteran college catcher. "Obviously he throws a lot harder than your average college pitcher. You really notice the difference.

"When I was behind the plate, I was amazed at the plate discipline these guys have. It's just so much different than what we usually see."

Tonight it'll be another group of college players trying to hit something none of us has ever seen: Daisuke Matsuzaka. Maybe they'll even see a gyroball.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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