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Bob Ryan

More than a few hearts to support the ace of club

Red Sox ace Josh Beckett gives a pat to catcher Jason Varitek after beating the Indians for the second time in the ALCS. Red Sox ace Josh Beckett gives a pat to catcher Jason Varitek after beating the Indians for the second time in the ALCS.

CLEVELAND - OK, Curt Schilling, Red Sox Nation turns its anxious eyes to you. My guess is you won't mind being the center of attention one more time.

Josh Beckett, fast becoming the Mr. October of the pitching set, did his job at The Jake last night. Given the stakes, this was an even more impressive performance than the four-hit shutout of the impotent Angels back there in Game 1 of the Division Series. This Indians team has some serious hitters, but they were pretty much mesmerized by Boston's ace righthander, who came within a Grady Sizemore leadoff bloop double of shutting them out. After that tainted first (in which the only Cleveland run scored on a double-play ball), Beckett was his usual assertive postseason self, escaping his only jam with a strikeout of Asdrubal Cabrera with men on first and third and two away in the fifth.

That was one of 11 strikeouts for Beckett, about whom the only nitpicking thing you can say is that he finally walked somebody. But just one, so hold the angry 'EEI and 890 phone calls.

"Once he settled down and established his breaking ball," said Terry Francona, "he really became the dominant pitcher we've relied on so much."

It was his third straight Cy Young-level outing of the 2007 postseason, which is very interesting since he is very unlikely to win the award. C.C. Sabathia is, and he may not feel as good about that prize as he'd like to since he has now gone to the post three times this month and is now 1-2 with last night's 7-1 loss, two in head-to-head battles with his chief competitor for the biggest pitching award. In the first two starts, C.C. was flat-out bad. Last night he was middlin', and middlin' had no chance against Mr. Josh Beckett, who has been the No. 1 starter of any team's dreams in his three postseason starts.

But it wasn't just "The Josh Beckett Story" last night. From the moment Kevin Youkilis hit Sabathia's fourth pitch of the game onto the landing in left for his third postseason homer, the Red Sox had the look and feel and bounce of a team that, yup, really has been here before. They reached Sabathia for 10 hits, and they came within 2 inches of breaking the game open long before the three-run eighth that really did put the game out of reach.

The first inch was the one that turned a third-inning Manny Ramírez blow to deep right-center from a potential two-run homer into an epic RBI single (hate to upset the Manny Enablers, but their guy should have been standing on second). The ball hit the yellow line at the top of the fence, missing a home run by that inch. Francona made the requisite plea for a homer, but replays vindicated the judgment of second base umpire Randy Marsh.

The second inch was the one preventing Mike Lowell's vicious liner to left from being a double with two on and two out in the fifth, when it was still a 2-1 game. The ball was juuuust foul. Lowell wound up being hit by a pitch, and Bobby Kielty flied to right, leaving the bases loaded.

These both looked big at the time, but upon further review, there was never any need to worry since Beckett had once again brought his A game to the mound, this time in his most important start of the season. Whereas Sabathia was constantly trying to extinguish brushfires, which is very difficult to do when you don't have command (70 strikes, 42 balls), Beckett had that cruise gear look after the first.

He had a stretch in which he retired 13 of 14. He had back-to-back nine- and six-pitch innings. He finished his eight innings of work by retiring nine of the final 10, the 10th man (Kenny Lofton) reaching when Beckett allowed his dribbler to roll through his legs.

Of equal importance in the big picture was the partial rebirth of the Red Sox offense, which had gone on vacation after a three-run third inning in Game 2. When Manny hit that ludicrous "single" in the third, it brought home David Ortiz, who had reached on a walk. That represented the first Red Sox run not involving a home run in 28 innings.

They got two more non-homer runs in the seventh, when Dustin (I Am Swinging The Ball Well No Matter What Anyone Says) Pedroia doubled to right-center and scored on a Youkilis triple to the same spot that seemed to confuse center fielder Sizemore. Cleveland manager Eric Wedge brought in Rafael Betancourt to face Big Papi, and he hit a sacrifice fly to left, making it 4-1. The Sox added three pad runs in a bizarre eighth - that is, unless you consider getting three runs on three walks, a pitcher's throwing error, a passed ball, and a bunt single something other than bizarre.

The Red Sox would have taken any kind of win in order to extend their season, but Beckett gave them more than just a victory. He put a little spring in all their steps. This wasn't about luck or chance or a disputed call or anything that would have allowed the Indians to rationalize their inability to close out the Red Sox in their own stadium. Beckett sent the Red Sox back to Fenway feeling very good about themselves.

So now it's up to the new, reinvented, wily, 40-year-old Schilling to keep the Red Sox alive tomorrow night. Schill was back home watching this one on the telly, in case you're wondering. And you know he was watching this and saying, "Hey, that used to be me! I used to come into these big games with the gas, daring them to hit me."

But that particular torch has been passed. The Kid is in his prime. The Kid is building the next great postseason pitching résumé. Schill is now reliant on location and trickeration.

It will be an interesting matchup because the Indians will be sending out their own flamethrowing phenom, 23-year-old Fausto Carmona, who, when he is on his game, is variously described as "nasty" and "unhittable." On paper, it's a talent mismatch.

I'm sure Curt's going to say that in a survival game like this, it's not just talent that matters. Who knows? He might be right.

But we sure know this much: Schill may win, but he won't be doing it the way Josh Beckett did.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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