CHICAGO - Just as parts of the rotation are crumbling - health for Tim Wakefield, ineffectiveness for Clay Buchholz - Josh Beckett has chosen this point in the season to reassert himself. He hadn't been struggling, exactly. No, he has "just been off just a click," as Jason Varitek put it.
He hasn't been the Beckett of last season, when he almost won the Cy Young Award, or the Beckett of the postseason, when he was better than any pitcher had any right to be.
So his timing is perfect now. More than any other time this season, as the August doldrums set in, Beckett the ace is needed.
"You can't predict turning the corner, but I think he's got a lot left in the tank for whatever we have left," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "He looks strong. He's locating. And we will need him to do that."
But as good as he was last night, he needed some help from the offense. Against the White Sox' John Danks (7 innings, 2 hits, 2 runs, career-high-tying 9 strikeouts), that wasn't exactly easy. Not until the sixth inning did Boston get a baserunner, and it wasn't until the seventh that the team got its first hit. It was in that inning, though, that the Red Sox scored two, propelling Beckett to a 5-1 win in front of 32,634 at U.S. Cellular Field for a split of this four-game series.
"The way Danks was throwing, you don't want them to spread out or get an extra run, because his stuff was so good," Francona said. "Everything was working. He was throwing changeup, he was throwing fastball, cutter, curveball, he had everything working. But Beckett kept him to 1. Gave us a chance."
Francona called Danks "the best we've seen" - a high compliment considering the scintillating performances of Justin Duchscherer and John Lackey this season - and it looked as though he might finally be the guy to put together a no-hitter against the Red Sox. It wasn't until Jacoby Ellsbury was hit by a fastball in the rear end with two outs in the sixth inning that someone reached base. And he didn't make it to second, as Coco Crisp grounded out to end the inning.
Then Kevin Youkilis, sore shoulder and all, came up with one out in the seventh. On a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, Youkilis sawed his bat off at the hands, leaving him with just a nub in his grasp - and a single to center field. Danks stood on the mound and rubbed his sweaty forehead in frustration, knowing exactly what that single meant.
"I knew it when I hit it," Youkilis said. "When it came off the bat, I knew I had a hit out of it. Just the way it came off, just kind of stayed through it, kind of floated over into center field. It probably helped me. If I had hit it harder, might have gone to the center fielder."
It meant even more than the breakup of the no-hitter when J.D. Drew blasted a double to left-center, sending home both Youkilis and Mike Lowell (who had walked after the single) to put the Red Sox up, 2-1.
It happened so fast. They had nothing, then they had a runner, then they had a hit. And a walk, and a double, and the lead.
"Game's hard to figure out sometimes," Francona said. "The good part of it was it was a 1-0 lead. You always feel like you're a hit or a walk [away]."
And once the Red Sox scored, once they broke up Danks's chance at history, Beckett pushed back at the White Sox even harder. He allowed one runner in the seventh and one more in the eighth, both coming with two outs.
Beckett's only miscue came in the third, as Nick Swisher led off with a single to left field, followed by a single by Juan Uribe. Two fly outs to center field - the first moving Swisher to third, the second sending him home - marred the evening for Beckett. It was his second straight dominant outing, the other coming in a win over the Royals last Tuesday.
"Tonight it was just staying pitch to pitch, not getting too far ahead," Beckett said. "I wasn't thinking about the 0-and-2 pitch when I was 0-and-0. Sometimes it's easy to do that, you start thinking about the result. Maybe that corrupts the process. I think I'm staying good with staying with the process."
And it was the third time in four outings that Beckett has come close to being himself. Other than a disaster of a start against the Angels - eight runs (seven earned) in 5 1/3 innings - Beckett has given up just four runs in 21 2/3 innings in those other three.
"To turn things around here, we need to start with pitching," Varitek said. "He was clean today with his delivery. Balls were going where he wanted them to. He's had to fight that quite a bit throughout different parts of the year. No better time than now to figure it out."