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Pitching out of this stretch

Signs there, but Beckett not right

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / September 3, 2009

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Former Jets coach Herm Edwards is known for saying, “You play to win the game.’’ And Josh Beckett is no different.

There may have been encouraging signs he was coming out of this horrible stretch of four games when he settled down after two brutal innings to hold the Rays in innings 3-6 last night, but when asked about the adjustments he made and whether there was light at the end of the tunnel, Beckett emphasized, “We lost the game.’’

Indeed, Beckett failed to earn his 15th win of the season in his fourth attempt, during which time he has an 8.88 ERA and has allowed 24 earned runs over 24 1/3 innings, a far cry from a 12-2, 2.17 stretch that has long since been left in the rearview mirror. Is there reason to believe Beckett, the ace of the Red Sox’ staff, a pitcher who must come out of this funk for the Sox to go anywhere in October, has turned the corner? Only Beckett knows for sure, and he’s like prying injury information out of Bill Belichick.

There were about a dozen major league scouts at last night’s game, monitoring Beckett’s every pitch. There were likely 12 different opinions on what ails Beckett, but one common theme among a few of the scouts was arm speed, or what they call “working arm speed.’’ According to some, Beckett’s arm speed is about 2-3 miles per hour slower than it was earlier this season. That could be due to anything. Some wondered if Beckett had an injury he might be concealing. Some wondered if the amount of innings has caught up to him and he was simply fatigued. Theories, but nothing concrete. Only Beckett knows for sure.

“The last four innings he pitched, he really got into the flow of the game,’’ said manager Terry Francona following the Sox’ 8-5 loss. “When he made mistakes, he paid for them.’’

Beckett’s home run totals are getting staggering - 14 over the last five games and 24 on the season. He allowed solo shots to Carl Crawford in the first and Pat Burrell in the second, but the homers aren’t what irked him.

“Obviously, the big inning was the second inning,’’ he said. “I felt like I made some adjustments after that.’’

Beckett wasn’t very specific, and would only comment that he had better location on his pitches. We certainly saw that. The fact he couldn’t stop the bleeding after Burrell’s homer really stuck in his craw. A 2-1 Tampa Bay lead turned into a 4-1 advantage when Evan Longoria, Gregg Zaun, and Akinori Iwamura singled, and B.J. Upton reached on a fielder’s choice.

“Obviously we lost, so there aren’t a lot of positives I can take out of this,’’ Beckett said. “Base hit after base hit is not going to get it done.’’

We know, you play to win the game.

One of the American League scouts who has watched Beckett a lot thought he looked more like himself over the last four innings, but “not like the dominant Beckett. Everything was a little bit off from what he normally is when he’s really dominant. He had a better curveball later, but not the great curveball. There’s something a little bit off. We can certainly speculate on an injury, but a lot of guys pitch through things, and maybe he’s trying to pitch through something.’’

One scout noticed that Beckett’s delivery appeared to be more three-quarters, a sign of fatigue.

“I think whenever one of the best pitchers in the game goes through a slump like this all kinds of things are thrown out there,’’ said the scout. “Could be as simple as something mechanical, one little thing he normally does that he’s not doing, that could only be picked up by his own personal pitching coach. For their sake they have to hope this smooths out. This guy was lights out. I still wouldn’t want to face him in a big game with something on the line, but he’s not that pitcher right now.’’

Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell said last night’s game reminded him of one in Baltimore July 1, when Beckett allowed five runs over the first four innings, then pitched three scoreless innings in a game the Sox won, 6-5, in 11 innings.

“He was able to right the ship over the last four innings he was out there,’’ Farrell said. “I think tonight he threw 70 percent of his pitches for strikes and more typical of the outings he gave us before this stretch.’’

Farrell cited “more action’’ on Beckett’s curveball after the second inning, which kept Tampa Bay hitters off balance. He allowed an RBI double by Zaun in the third after Kevin Youkilis’s error, but he also struck out the side in that inning. In the fourth, Beckett allowed an infield hit to Jason Bartlett, but nothing else through the sixth inning. Of course, Beckett was helped by another highlight-reel catch by Jacoby Ellsbury, who extended to rob Upton of extra bases in the sixth.

When Beckett left after six, Tampa Bay led, 5-3. But the Sox’ bullpen without Billy Wagner and Jonathan Papelbon, and a curious move by Francona not to pinch hit Mike Lowell for Alex Gonzalez with the bases loaded and one out in the eighth, made it tough for the Sox to come out of this with a win.

The fifth day after one of these outcomes can’t come soon enough for Beckett. Maybe now there’s a reason to look forward to the next time Beckett takes the mound after the way he threw his last few innings.

The scouts will be filing there reports and talking to their superiors about Beckett. There will likely be a lot of different points of view as to what has happened to Boston’s ace. But one thing is clear to Beckett, he won’t have turned any corner until he wins a game.

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

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