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Beckett is game

He's ready to go for resurgent Sox

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / October 18, 2008
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - As many times as manager Terry Francona has repeated that Josh Beckett will be his Game 6 starter in the American League Championship Series, it hasn't seemed to take.

Francona was asked the question again after the Red Sox' comeback against the Rays in Game 5 and reiterated his decision. John Farrell got his turn at it yesterday, just minutes before Beckett was poised for the press conference featuring the Game 6 starter.

While the Red Sox haven't considered switching Beckett with Game 7 starter Jon Lester recently, it did come up in discussions prior to the series.

"That was part of the initial conversation when we set out the rotation at the beginning of the series," Farrell said. "But given the situation we're in, we're going to need every starter to get to the next level. And that being the case, we didn't want to take a day away from Jon to move him up.

"We're still competing for a world championship. We've got to take care of this series first. But we weren't willing to run Jon out there with one less day of rest because we're also balancing a workload, an innings total that is unprecedented for him. So, all those factors combined, we stayed the course with our rotation."

Which means Beckett - formerly automatic in the postseason - will get the ball tonight, trying to extend Boston's season by erasing a 3-2 series deficit. Then Lester, the Sox hope, will get it tomorrow.

But that doesn't ease the concerns that surround Beckett, and the mysterious depreciation of his velocity and effectiveness.

As Beckett and the coaching staff repeatedly have downplayed the injury worries, there is one aspect that hasn't been sufficiently answered. (The theory of the day was that multiple interruptions of his season have caused Beckett's problems.)

Asked if he had been forced to adjust because of his recent oblique injury, Beckett simply said, "No."

That was followed by the question, "Same guy, approaching things the same way?"

Beckett said, "Same."

Well, sort of.

"Every competitor, every pitcher, is going to use the reference point of when they've been at their best," Farrell said. "That's all the information they pull from to make a given pitch, and if that reference point is 95-97 [miles per hour] and yet that might not be there and it's 92-94 - I know we're only talking 3-4 miles per hour difference, but that is a difference between a ball that is fouled off to one that is squared up.

"If that point of reference is one where he's in the mid-90s to upper 90s where he's had maybe a greater ability to miss or to get outs when pitches are mislocated within the zone, you still have the benefit of velocity to get away with those pitches. That hasn't been the case these last two starts. He's well aware of it, and he's well within an approach that he knows what he's dealing with physically."

At any rate, the Rays have noticed, having battered Beckett for nine hits and eight runs (three home runs) as they took Game 2 in 11 innings.

They knocked Beckett out in just 4 1/3 innings, and that was following an equally problematic performance against the Angels in Game 3 of the Division Series. In that game, Beckett lasted five innings, but gave up nine hits and four walks while allowing four runs in a Sox loss. Not exactly what he's known for.

"Primarily the only thing that stood out, maybe his velocity was down a bit," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I still saw the tenacity."

Tenacity, though, can't get it done on its own. Command of the fastball helps, which is exactly what Beckett has struggled with lately.

Since his curveball and changeup have retained their effectiveness, the issue is the consistency - or inconsistency - of Beckett's fastball location, especially coupled with the downturn in velocity. Farrell cited specifically balls that Beckett has attempted to throw down to righthanders that have ended up over the plate.

"I think the biggest thing he needs to do is just go pitch to pitch," Francona said. "He was getting a little frustrated the other day, and not second-guessing the game plan, but trying to think it through too much. When he is relaxed and comfortable and just executing pitches, there may not be a better pitcher in the game. Even when he's not throwing 97.

"There's been some things he's fighting. Some of it is inconsistency because of work, and it was hard for him. But again, if you have to give the ball to somebody in Game 6, I can't imagine not being excited to give him the ball."

David Ortiz seemed to think so, citing Beckett's lackluster card-playing results on the team plane from Boston to St. Petersburg as evidence that the pitcher will be fine.

That might not exactly have an effect, but there is no question Beckett is maintaining his confidence.

"Josh," Ortiz said, "this is a big-game guy. I've got the feeling that tomorrow he's going to bring it."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

American League Championship Series
Series Overview
3
wins
4
FROM TODAY'S GLOBE
ALCS ESSENTIALS
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