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Beckett swears it's no big deal

One cursed HR his only blemish

After the fourth, Josh Beckett had an apparently secret word with plate umpire Dana DeMuth. After the fourth, Josh Beckett had an apparently secret word with plate umpire Dana DeMuth. (JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF)

He is the undisputed ace of the Red Sox staff, non-rookie division, and may be the last pitcher standing when they pass out the shiny trophies to the game's best pitchers in November.

Erik Bedard, the young lefty sensation from Baltimore, has a strained oblique muscle and is uncertain to pitch again this season. The elegant Johan Santana, a two-time Cy Young winner from the Twins, is 0-5 against the Indians, the team he has to beat in his division. Dan Haren, who started the All-Star Game for the American League, is having a so-so second half for a team, the Athletics, that was out of contention by the end of July.

C.C. Sabathia, the Indians' 16-game winner, has given up more hits than any other pitcher in the league. John Lackey? Another 16-game winner, he has been the staff-saving ace of the Angels, and has not allowed a run in three wins against the Mariners, the Angels' chief rival in the West, but only the night owls are likely to have seen his highlights.

That leaves Josh Beckett, a World Series MVP at age 23 for the Florida Marlins in 2003, a leading candidate to win the Cy Young Award for the Red Sox at age 27 in 2007. His candidacy gained further momentum last night when he outdueled Roy Halladay, the AL's Cy Young winner in 2003, 5-3, to become the major leagues' first 17-game winner while establishing a career high in the win column.

Beckett won 16 games for the Sox last season, but that was with a bloated 5.01 ERA. This season, the ERA is 3.30, the walks have been nearly halved (36 this season with four starts to go, 74 last season), and the home runs only a third of what they were last season (12 to 36), even after Matt Stairs whacked a three-run shot into the Blue Jays' bullpen to account for all of Toronto's scoring in the fifth.

"A [expletive] changeup down the [expletive] middle," said Beckett, who tends to be at his crudest after games in which his pitching has been its purest.

That was the only evident mistake allowed by the 6-foot-5-inch righthander, who allowed only four other hits, all singles, in eight innings, while walking just two and striking out seven. Two of the singles were erased by double plays. John McDonald stole second as Vernon Wells was whiffing for the second out of the third inning, but he advanced no further.

Toronto's only uprising against Beckett came when Aaron Hill singled off the pitcher's foot, McDonald drew a walk, and Stairs launched his @#$&*!! home run on a first-pitch changeup.

"I executed pitches when I needed to," Beckett said. "All except one."

Beckett was generous in his praise of his defense, excited about the contribution of the kids like Jacoby Ellsbury ("We always tease Manny: 'Watch out, Wally Pipp' "), and comically delighted in the performance of closer Jonathan Papelbon, who rang up his 33d save.

"Pretty good, isn't he?" Beckett said of Papelbon. "Who would have thought a dumb redneck from Mississippi would be that good? He's as good as anyone I've ever seen."

Beckett was especially respectful of his beaten adversary, Halladay, who was done in when Coco Crisp beat out a double-play relay ahead of Ellsbury's two-run home run and back-to-back doubles by Julio Lugo and Dustin Pedroia.

"He's one of the really, really, really great guys to watch," Beckett said. "He battled tonight for eight innings, 120-something pitches [126]. Just shows you what a competitor he is.

"It never gets old to me. I hate to have to go head to head with him, but that's part of the deal."

Beckett covered just about everybody, it seems, except Josh Beckett. There would be no coaxing him into contemplating 20 wins, the traditional gold standard for a starting pitcher.

"I've still got to get to 18 right now," he said. "You start thinking about the result, it corrupts the process. Today is now my easy day. I've got to go to work and be out there again in another five days."

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