Sox hope Beckett continues to be armed force
TORONTO - Back in spring training, before Josh Beckett had proven anything in regards to his 2009 season, they could see it. The way he had trained, the lack of injury, the way the ball made that reassuring popping noise when hitting the catcher’s mitt. So manager Terry Francona and pitching coach John Farrell said it: the Beckett who arrived amid the palm trees and lackluster competition of the Grapefruit League was the same one who, back in 2007, dominated the American League.
Beckett has done the same this season, emerging from a blip in late April, to become the Beckett remembered with fierce devotion for his near-Cy Young campaign, for his ability to lead a team and a pitching staff, for his way of utterly taking over a team and a game.
“Based on spring training, he was in a position to have similar performances that he showed in ’07,’’ Farrell said. “He went through a stretch at the end of April that weren’t the outcomes that he or anyone else expected. But since that time he’s been a model of consistency at a very high level of performance.’’
His dip in April lasted for four starts, beginning after his stellar opener against the Rays. During that stretch, Beckett had a 1-2 record with an eye-popping 9.14 ERA. Batters were hitting .351 off him and were slugging .526. Not exactly the stuff of an ace.
Since then, however, Beckett has been otherworldly. In 18 games, his record is 12-2 with a 2.17 ERA. Batters are hitting .208 off him and are slugging .314. Pretty much the stuff of a Cy Young candidate.
He has not allowed a single run, earned or otherwise, in six of his last dozen starts.
“There’s a number of things that are contributing to this,’’ Farrell said. “Overall command, strike-throwing ability, certainly is there. But I think the mental component of his game has been very consistent, very much under control. He’s one that thrives on adrenaline to get him to a certain level of competitive state, but it’s not to the point where it’s overdone, that negatively affects his ability to make pitches from hitter to hitter or from inning to inning.
“I think more importantly in key situations, where there’s been less than two outs and runners on base, he’s not tried to do more, in other words, get added velocity or think, ‘I’m going to try to strike a guy out on the first pitch of the at-bat.’ As a result he’s methodically . . . gotten through a number of innings where runs could have scored.’’
In other words, he has learned from his mistakes.
That was who he was in 2006, the overthrowing, the addition of velocity at the expense of location, the need for a strikeout when a ground ball would have been just as effective. Even with all his experience in the major leagues - at 29 years old, he has all or parts of nine seasons in the bigs behind him - Beckett is maturing. He’s improving.
“I think over the course of the last 2 1/2 to three years, he has gotten much more of a grasp on not getting ahead of himself, whether that’s in his bullpen work where he practices these techniques to executing it in game situations,’’ Farrell said. “The reference of not allowing the game to speed up is many times mentioned, but he certainly brings that to life.’’
And that does not go unnoticed by his teammates.
“There’s quite a few things that you can learn from watching somebody of that caliber, but for the most part how he prepares and how he gets mentally ready for each start,’’ Clay Buchholz said. “That’s pretty cool to sit back and watch, for the fact that he’s still not even old yet. He still has a long career in the big leagues and could definitely be a Hall of Fame pitcher in the future.
“It’s neat to watch him do the things that he does. Even when things go bad, he finds a way to get back into the game and not let anything get away from him. That’s a veteran move. Not many young guys can do that or make that happen.’’
So Beckett will continue his clinic on mental approach and making it work in a game setting when he returns to the mound tonight against the Blue Jays. With his team needing him to lead it as much as it needs the offense that hasn’t quite been there lately, Beckett will attempt to get win No. 15. Just as the Sox have dropped out of the top spot for the wild card, losing two of three to the Rangers in Texas, in rides their most consistent and most spectacular starter.
This much is clear, from the way he has pitched this season, and the way he has approached his starts: Beckett will be ready. He will know what to do and when do it.
“It comes with maturity, it comes with being in that situation many times over and through that repetition, you find out what your limits are in certain areas: not relying on velocity, yet still continues to mix his pitches, prioritizing location over velocity, which the way he’s built he’s going to throw the baseball hard,’’ Farrell said.
“Location has clearly been the tangible result of a very much mind-in-the moment or pitch-to-pitch approach.’’
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.