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Jackie MacMullan

Reputation takes another giant leap

CLEVELAND - The Red Sox live.

More specifically, they live off Josh Beckett.

With his team facing elimination from the 2007 playoffs, Boston's cocky righthander assaulted the Cleveland Indians with filthy fastballs (including one in the second inning that was clocked at 101 miles per hour), nasty curveballs, laser control, and a primal scream that prompted veteran outfielder Kenny Lofton to stride angrily toward the mound from first base to confront Beckett after he flied out to left field.

If you were one of those discouraged Sox fans who felt your team needed to display a sharper edge, a little more attitude, and a little more heat, Beckett took care of all of that in a tidy 7-1 win last night in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series. The Sox now trail the Tribe, 3-2, with the series heading back to Fenway Park tomorrow.

For that, they can thank Beckett. The best pitcher in this postseason was again magnificent - aside from a first-inning blip in which he gave up a bloop double to leadoff hitter Grady Sizemore (who would score on a double play) and a sharp single to Asdrubal Cabrera. That inning was soon forgotten as Beckett mowed down the flummoxed Cleveland batters with some of the best stuff he's shown in his career.

As for those who theorized he was distracted in that initial inning by the fact the Indians flew in his former girlfriend Danielle Peck to sing the national anthem, Beckett came at that with heat, too.

"I don't get paid to make those [expletive] decisions," he said. "Thanks for flying one of my friends to the game so she can watch it for free."

In the quiet of the Cleveland clubhouse, the players paid homage to Beckett and his poise.

"He doesn't get enough credit for his sinker," said first baseman Ryan Garko. "He struck me out with that pitch. It's the best one I've seen all year."

Asked if he could place Beckett among the elite performers in the American League, Garko answered, "I've seen Johan [Santana] pitch like that, and [Justin] Verlander. But they weren't better than Beckett - they were just as good."

This latest notch in Beckett's postseason holster will only add to his reputation as a big-time, big-game pitcher. He has proven to be as clutch in the playoffs as former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri, who automatically delivered when the game - and the season - was on the line. Boston's Cy Young hopeful has won four consecutive postseason starts, giving up but three earned runs in 32 innings.

"Once he settled down, started establishing that breaking ball, he really became the guy, the dominant pitcher that we rely on so much," said manager Terry Francona.

It helps when your fastball is searing, and your control is impeccable. Beckett scattered five hits, punched out a season-high 11 batters, and walked just one. The only base runner he allowed after the fifth inning was Lofton, who reached on an error when his ground ball in the seventh went under Beckett's glove.

The crowd roared with delight at that development, particularly because of what transpired in the fifth, when Beckett ran the count to 3 and 0 on Lofton, then threw what was called a strike. Lofton disagreed, and dropped his bat to express his unhappiness with the call. He lofted the next pitch to left field, and as the ball took flight, Beckett screamed loudly, and, according to Lofton, added some choice words. At that point, Lofton began walking toward Beckett, but was intercepted by third baseman Mike Lowell.

"He said some things to me I didn't like, so I said some things back," Lofton said. "It goes back to 2005. He don't like it when I flip my bat [looking for the walk]. He didn't like it."

Beckett confirmed Lofton's suspicions, citing the flipped bat as the source of his irritation.

"Yeah, it's a lot of stuff that kind of goes back before today," Beckett said. "Those things have a way of working themselves out."

"That's the way he is," Lofton said of Beckett. "He's that kind of guy. He was saying stuff to me and I didn't like it. When you say stuff to Kenny, he's going to say stuff back."

There wasn't much anybody in the Cleveland clubhouse could say about what Beckett has done to them except, perhaps, good riddance.

He is 3-0 with a 1.17 ERA in these playoffs, and the only pitcher in the Sox rotation to get out of the fifth inning against the Indians - not to mention record a victory.

And therein lies the problem. With Game 6 slated for tomorrow and Game 7 (if necessary) Sunday, there is no way Beckett can make another start unless his team advances to the World Series. Had he pitched in Game 4 on three days' rest, he would have been available for Game 7, but that's ancient history now. Now the only option will be to use him for an inning or two out of the bullpen.

"We'll deal with that later," Beckett said. "Obviously, I'm preparing myself for them to ask me that. I think that's something I can do."

The ace has done enough. Now it's up to his teammates not to let his brilliant performances go for naught.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

 RED SOX 7, INDIANS 1: More Coverage  |  Photo Gallery Game 5 Photos
Pop-up GRAPHIC: Tracking the starters Pop-up GRAPHIC: Beckett in the postseason Pop-up GRAPHIC: Striking achievement

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