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Beckett a mix master

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By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 10, 2009
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The biggest compliment anyone could pay Josh Beckett would be this: He looks like he did in 2007.

That was what the Red Sox had in mind entering this season. Get Beckett back to being dominant, showing no signs of the struggles he had in 2006 and 2008.

It took a while, because in three consecutive starts in late April and early May, he allowed 10 hits each game. But things have changed dramatically; he's now allowed 15 hits in his last five starts, and that kick-butt aura has returned to his game.

Last night, Beckett dominated in six innings of a 7-0 win over the Yankees, allowing one hit, two walks, and striking out eight before manager Terry Francona relieved him and saved a few bullets, as Beckett threw 119 pitches in a 10-1 win over the Tigers last week.

It's always a positive sign when Beckett, now 7-2, can dominate a tough Yankee lineup and send a signal that Boston's No. 1 pitcher will be a challenge should these teams meet along the playoff trail.

He beat them for the second time this season, and the respect for him has returned - not that it really ever went away.

CC Sabathia is being paid to be that ace/postseason star for the Yankees, but while he's turned it around after a rough start, his playoff performances have paled in comparison to Beckett's. Last night's result gave Boston, now 6-0 against the Yankees, a leg up in the ace department.

A.J. Burnett, one of Beckett's former Marlins teammates, struggled last night and hasn't been able to assert himself as a No. 1 starter. Yankees manager Joe Girardi said Burnett was "too strong" because he was working on seven days' rest. What was supposed to be a good matchup of hard throwers turned out to be one-sided in Beckett's favor.

"He just seemed to find what was working for him," said Yankees designated hitter Johnny Damon. "We didn't hit too many balls hard, and when we did, it was right at guys.

"Josh knows how to pitch. The first time through [the lineup], he was trying to find his curveball. You have to give Jason Varitek a lot of credit, too, for knowing how to get him there.

"He was throwing his fastball and then found his changeup, and once he got some runs, he threw his curveball more."

Derek Jeter said the Yankees "didn't get any good swings" off Beckett.

Beckett indeed mixed his pitches quite well, throwing a lot more curveballs than usual as the Yankees seemed to be looking fastball.

"The contrast with Burnett [five runs in 2 2/3 innings] was astounding," said a National League scout at Fenway last night. "Beckett pitched inside, Burnett did not. Beckett commanded his fastball on both sides of the plate, Burnett did not. Beckett really pitched. It wasn't just, 'Here's my fastball, I'm going to throw it past you.' He pitched."

Does he belong up there with Roy Halladay and Johan Santana? "Same ballpark," said the scout. "Halladay is the best pitcher in baseball. Santana is right there with him.

"Beckett is an ace. Do I want him pitching Game 1 of a World Series game? You bet I do. Do I want him pitching Game 7? Absolutely. He's done it before.

"Tonight was as good as I've seen him from a 'pitching' point of view in a long time. He's come a long way from some of his early-season starts when he was unsure of himself. I've seen him more dominating, but it's a tribute to him that he was able to find what worked for him and dominate a pretty good lineup like that."

Francona said he yanked Beckett after six "because we leaned on him a little hard the last time.

"I think he was at 119, and he doesn't have an extra day this time. That's the hard thing. [Pitching coach] John Farrell and I thought that might be about it. We talked to him and I think he felt it was the best thing, too."

Beckett downplays just about everything he does, and that was the case after last night's fine effort. He often talks about fastball location, and that's been his bread and butter over the past three starts, in which he's allowed no more than one earned run. In his last seven starts Beckett is 5-0 with a 1.70 ERA.

Yes, he's the Beckett we saw so often in '07 and in the playoffs and World Series.

"I felt good," he said. "It's a work in progress. We're taking care of the stuff we need to take care of. Fastball location was good, which you definitely need to have with this team.

"The whole game of baseball is predicated on the fastball, keeping it located, like I did tonight. More times than not you're going to be pretty successful."

An American League scout at the game said Beckett "is gaining a lot of confidence again. That's bad news for the rest of the league. When he gets on one of those rolls, you can't touch him.

"The thing with Beckett is being able to repeat it over the remainder of the year. Everyone's going to have a tough spot, but the aces stay consistent.

"He's an ace. What a weapon for the Red Sox."

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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