ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - There is no need for anyone connected with the Red Sox to give lefthander Jon Lester a pep talk before his scheduled start tonight in the deciding game of the American League Championship Series.
Lester watched rotation-mate Josh Beckett make it through five mostly difficult innings in a 4-2 victory against Tampa Bay last night at Tropicana Field. Beckett's performance provided inspiration for Lester.
"He's a battler," Lester said. "He competes as hard as he can. He didn't have the kind of stuff that he normally has, but he pitched his butt off."
This marked the third consecutive postseason start in which Beckett did not make it to the sixth inning. The difference this time was that Beckett found a way to overcome the limitations caused by a strained oblique muscle and win.
In his previous starts, against the Angels in a Division Series and the Rays in the second game of the ALCS, Beckett allowed 18 hits and 12 earned runs in 9 1/3 innings. He gave up three leads against the Rays.
This time, Beckett held the Rays to two runs, on homers, and only one at-bat with a runner in scoring position. He did it with more breaking and offspeed pitches than usual.
"He threw with a lot of guts," manager Terry Francona said. "It's not vintage Josh Beckett. But he also proved who he is. He gave us what we needed, and I don't think it was real easy for him."
Beckett was his usual hard-boiled self after the win.
"I felt like I executed pitches when I needed to," said Beckett, giving his stock answer.
Beckett did have improved life on his pitches.
In Game 2, the Rays missed on only four of their 40 swings against Beckett. In the rematch, they missed on five of 34 swings. He threw nearly as many curveballs (28) as fastballs.
"Josh really had to be deliberate and stay within himself," catcher Jason Varitek said. "He has had to make some adjustments. He's not pitching with a 97 [mile-per-hour] fastball. But he knows how to pitch."
The Red Sox were not ready to go long with Beckett. The bullpen, first Javier Lopez and then Hideki Okajima, started preparing as soon as Beckett began facing hitters for a second time.
The third was a significant inning for Beckett. For the first time in five tries during the postseason, he had a shutdown inning, holding the opponent scoreless immediately after receiving a lead.
The Rays had their only at-bat with a runner in scoring position against Beckett in the fourth. With two outs, Carl Crawford poked a changeup to left for an opposite-field single and stole second.
Beckett responded with his best fastball of the game: a sinker that Cliff Floyd tried to pull and grounded to first baseman Mark Kotsay.
Beckett won a close race to the bag to take the flip from Kotsay and get the inning-ending out.
"We finally executed one of those," pitching coach John Farrell said. "We've had some plays like that in this ballpark that have not turned our way. That was a key part of the game."
When Beckett had to reach back for one big pitch, he made it.