Beckett shows he can pick his spots
Curt Schilling's postseason résumé was even better than you realize.
11-2, 2.23 ERA is well documented. But he also had five tough playoff no-decisions, including three blown saves - two by Mitch Williams and one by Byung-Hyun Kim - in which he handed over leads of 3-0, 3-1, and 3-2. Clearly, Curt Schilling was the postseason pitching star of his generation.
And the torch may very well have been passed to teammate Josh Beckett.
The record of 6-2 with an accompanying ERA of 1.73 is pretty good. But it's the last five starts that have gotten our attention. You have to go back to names such as Koufax and Gibson to find someone who has been as dominant in the playoffs as Josh Beckett has been in his last two postseasons.
2003: Loses, 2-1, in the NLDS to the Giants.
Has no-decision in Game 1 loss in the NLCS to the Cubs, surrendering six earned runs.
Wins Game 5 in the NLCS with a two-hit, 11-strikeout shutout.
Relieves in Game 7 of the NLCS with four scoreless innings, 5-6-7-8, in Florida victory.
Loses Game 3 of World Series, handing over 2-1 lead to Dontrelle Willis.
Wins clinching Game 6 of the World Series on (first-ever) three days' rest, throwing five-hit shutout.
Wins Game 1 of the ALDS with four-hit shutout of Angels.
Wins Game 1 of the ALCS, giving up two earned runs in six innings in 10-3 victory over the Indians.
Wins Game 5 of the ALCS with an eight-inning, five-hit, one-run elimination-game victory.
Wins Game 1 of the World Series with seven-inning, six-hit, one-run performance against the Rockies.
Wade through it all, and you'll see that Beckett has three shutouts in his last seven postseason starts. Since Game 5 of the 2003 NLCS, he has been essentially unhittable in the games that matter most.
There is certainly no question who was the MSP (Most Scintillating Performer) of the 2007 postseason. Josh Beckett was 4-0 with a 1.20 ERA. He had 35 strikeouts and two walks.
Of course, he was bred for all this. Josh Beckett was the national Player of the Year at Spring (Texas) High School in 1999. He was good, and he knew it, going so far as to have the word "phenom" stitched on one of his jackets.
It was between Beckett and outfielder Josh Hamilton as the No. 1 draft pick, and the latter received the honor, in part because the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were scared off by a cockiness that occasionally bleeds into arrogance - or so they thought.
The Florida Marlins were happy to draft Beckett, but he was not an easy signee. They offered $4 million. Beckett said no. He enrolled at Blinn Junior College before the Marlins caved in, coming up with a $7 million package that included a $4 million signing bonus.
En route to becoming JOSH BECKETT, he had serious problems with recurrent blisters, in addition to shoulder problems. His dazzling 2003 postseason was something of a tease since he was, for physical reasons, a modest 9-9 in 26 starts the following year.
No one ever doubted his raw talent. He's always had the high-90s fastball (with the much-sought-after "late life"). He's always had the 12-to-6 curveball. He's always had the paralyzing changeup. And he has never been afraid to throw any of them on any count. But durability has been an issue. It wasn't until he was traded (in a salary dump) to Boston that he finally worked his first 200-inning season.
It was hard to know what to make of Beckett in 2006. He did win 16 games, but he had a hideous 5.01 ERA and he was near 7.00 in the second half of the season. He gave up 36 home runs. He let the team down in anything that even resembled a big game.
One piece of good news was that he had no reported blister problems. But he was certainly far from Wonder Child status. But he never lost confidence in himself, and in spring training he practically guaranteed things would be better in 2007.
"I think what happened was just that my curveball command was off," he reported to colleague Dan Shaughnessy in February. "It was an all-year thing."
The home runs? "I think it was just location on the fastball. No doubt about it."
The altitudinous ERA? "It was embarrassing."
"I think Josh knew exactly what needed to be done without hearing it from anyone else," maintains Theo Epstein. "He talked about the importance of his changeup and how he was mad at himself for getting away from it in 2006. It's difficult to make fundamental adjustments in the middle of the year. He really benefited from the ability to pause, take a deep breath, and process everything over the winter."
He won his first nine decisions, during which opponents hit two home runs. He finished 20-7, and will either finish 1-2 or 2-1 in the Cy Young voting with Cleveland's C.C. Sabathia, whom he defeated twice in the playoffs. He was the winning pitcher in the All-Star Game, a decision that helped secure home-field advantage in the World Series. He was the fulfilled promise of the 2003 Josh Beckett.
The superlatives are flying. Friend and foe alike are identifying him as baseball's premier Big Game pitcher. Those postseason shutouts? Thirty-five whiffs and two bases on balls in a single postseason? You don't see those things on anyone else's résumé.
Josh Beckett turns 28 in May. He's signed through 2009, with a club option for 2010.
Good job, Theo.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.