Red Sox start with a blank slate
New arrivals get behind Beckett for shutout win
BALTIMORE - After the tumult of the previous two days, maybe the Red Sox deserved a measure of certainty. Timing was on their side last night. Baseball, by its nature, may offer no sure things, but Josh Beckett on a pitcher’s mound this season comes close.
The chaotic end of the week - a bombshell one day, a blockbuster the next - ceded to Beckett’s reassuring dominance last night in a 4-0 Red Sox victory over the Baltimore Orioles. While Victor Martinez went 1 for 5 with an RBI single in his Red Sox debut at first base, Beckett reminded the 49,384 at Camden Yards that it might not matter whose names populate the lineup card the days he pitches.
By shutting out the Orioles over seven innings, Beckett earned his 13th win, more than any pitcher in the majors this season. The Sox have won seven of Beckett’s last eight starts and 16 of 21 this year. His performance lifted the Sox to their third straight win and back to within a half-game of the first-place New York Yankees in the American League East.
“Beckett showed tonight why he’s one of the game’s best,’’ Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. “He’s throwing 89-90-mile-per-hour changeups or cutters, 97-mile-per-hour fastballs in on your hands. The guy’s just one of the game’s best.’’
Regardless of what else is happening, the Red Sox know when Beckett pitches, everything will probably be OK. Manager Terry Francona lauded his players for “grinding’’ while winning Thursday and Friday. With Beckett pitching, they didn’t need to grind; they cruised.
“I like that on my day, they feel like we should win,’’ Beckett said. “That’s huge. We’ve done a pretty good job of that this year.’’
Beckett allowed six hits, five of them singles, and only two minor threats. Pitching in hazy summer heat, the kind that sticks to you, Beckett fired 107 pitches, 69 of them strikes. He unleashed some of his most devastating stuff of the year.
Beckett struck out Aubrey Huff to lead off the second inning looking at an insdie fastball that hit 98 miles per hour on the stadium radar gun - “as nasty as you’re going to see,’’ Trembley said.
Jason Varitek thought Beckett’s two-seam fastball was even better than his four-seamer. His curveball darted like a balloon losing air.
“A lot of power without trying to generate power,’’ Francona said. “That’s a lineup that has really had good at-bats against him and made him work.’’
Three Orioles reached scoring position, and the Orioles put multiple runners on base only in Beckett’s final two innings. Beckett allowed no runners past first until the Orioles had two outs in the fifth inning when Cesar Izturis ripped a ball into the right-center gap. Josh Reddick’s bobble allowed Izturis to scoot to third for a triple.
Up came Brian Roberts. Beckett’s pitch pattern revealed a clear plan - he wanted to make Roberts beat him on his best pitch, low and away. Beckett peppered the bottom, outside portion of the strike zone with five consecutive fastballs, each one harder than the last. Roberts adjusted to the final pitch Beckett threw him, a 96-mile-per-hour four-seamer, and swatted it to left. It was enough to scare Beckett, but Jason Bay tracked down the ball by foul line, ending the inning and the rare threat.
The sixth and seventh played out like carbon copies. The first two Orioles reached base each inning. In the sixth, Beckett induced a Dustin Pedroia-to-Jed Lowrie-to-Martinez double play from Nolan Reimold. In the seventh, Matt Wieters started the twin killing by grounding to Lowrie.
The unburdened Red Sox offense twice left the bases loaded, but they also produced plenty of damage. They knocked out starter David Hernandez - who five-hit the Sox over seven innings to earn a win in his last start - after 4 1/3 innings.
In the first inning, Pedroia made clear the Sox would offer Hernandez more resistance. The second batter of the game, Pedroia crushed a deep home run to left, his sixth longball this season.
“He’s got good life on his fastball,’’ Pedroia said. “Everyone was focused on trying to get on top of it.
“We did a good job of getting his pitch count up. That’s something we didn’t do last time. We were hacking aggressively, hitting pop flies early in the count. We did a good job as a team of getting him out of the game and getting into the bullpen.’’
The primary force was Kevin Youkilis, who has shed his recent slump in favor of the form that once made him an early MVP candidate. Youkilis went 4 for 4 with a solo home run.
In the fifth inning, Hernandez threw Youkilis a first-pitch fastball, 92 miles an hour, high and inside. Youkilis turned on the pitch and drove it high to left-center, into the first row just beyond the 364-foot mark on the outfield fence.
After Monday’s game, Youkilis’s batting average had dropped to .291. In the five games since, Youkilis has gone 12 for 21 with two home runs, one of which provided the winning run Friday night. His average rocketed to .309, its highest point in a month.
“It looks like he’s trying to get hot,’’ Francona said. “He’s staying on pitches. I didn’t have a good answer as to why he was missing. But now he’s not.’’
The Sox added two runs in the sixth, one on a RBI single by Martinez and the second on a double by Rocco Baldelli, who replaced Bay after he left with a hamstring cramp.
Those final runs were overkill. Beckett allowed no earned runs in a start for the fifth time this season. He lowered his ERA to 3.27, which matches his best season with the Red Sox. Following two days that changed the complexion of their season, Beckett continued to provide a constant.
“He’s not content to have a good start and then back off,’’ Francona said. “He has a good start and then he works harder. That’s what it takes.’’
Adam Kilgore can be reached at email@example.com