Aces Sox' ultimate advantage
FORT MYERS, Fla. - Three aces. Three guys who won the deciding game of a World Series. All before the age of 25.
Jon Lester was 23 when he got the start in the fourth game of the 2007 World Series. He pitched 5 2/3 shutout innings, allowing three hits and walking three with three strikeouts. Lester was the winning pitcher in the Red Sox’ 4-3 clincher at Coors Field.
Josh Beckett was 23 when he took the ball for the Marlins in the sixth game of the 2003 World Series at Yankee Stadium. He pitched a five-hit shutout, beating the Yankees, 2-0, and was named Series Most Valuable Player. He was the youngest pitcher (23 years 5 months 10 days) to win a deciding Series game since Bret Saberhagen in 1985.
Rookie Angels righty John Lackey had just turned 24 when he started the seventh game of the 2002 Series against the Giants. Lackey went five innings, giving up one run on four hits and fanning four before turning a 4-1 lead over to Brendan Donnelly. Lackey faced Barry Bonds twice that night, getting Bonds on a liner to short, then surrendering an infield hit to the single-season home run king in the fourth inning. Lackey became the first rookie starter to win a seventh game of the Series since the immortal Babe Adams beat the Tigers for Pittsburgh in 1909.
These days much is made of assigning a number to a man’s place in a pitching rotation. You are a 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5, and it’s a little silly.
Ace is another interesting distinction. The ace is supposed to be “The One.’’
Red Sox manager Terry Francona knows he has three 1s. Three aces. He has three guys who have gotten the victory in the deciding game of a World Series.
There was drama each time. In October of 2007, Lester was just more than a year removed from the discovery that he had anaplastic large cell lymphoma. He was treated for cancer less than 12 months before he won the World Series.
“I wasn’t there the whole year and it was kind of a long road to get to that point,’’ said Lester. “Obviously, I worked hard that year, but I wasn’t part of the whole deal. It was cool to be a part of it, but I’d rather be there from Day 1.
“Having us ahead [three games to none] took the pressure off me. I was just the new guy filling in for somebody, because there was a possibility [Tim Wakefield] could go. Beckett was pretty much unhittable the whole playoffs that year so I knew we had him for the next game if something bad happened. I was just able to go out and pitch and do well. It was nice to get it early in my career. Now you hope to win another one, but if you don’t you’ve still won a World Series.’’
Beckett wasn’t dealing with any personal issues when he had his big game. He was a relatively anonymous young stopper for the Marlins, pitching in The House That Ruth Built. He was cocky. He had attitude. He was intimidated by nothing, certainly not the Yankees legacy.
“I wasn’t nervous,’’ he said. “I had some anxiety. I was just ready to get it started.
“The most memorable thing to me was the last play. I got Jorge Posada on a changeup and he hit it back to me and I tagged him out. We were the Florida Marlins. We’d fired our manager and our pitching coach and everybody else about four months earlier. When I tagged Posada, I remember going, ‘Did we just win the World Series?’ It was surreal. We were the Florida Marlins. We just went on an unbelievable run.’’
Lackey was a rookie from Texas pitching on three days of rest in Game 7.
“I didn’t know I was going to pitch until right after Game 6,’’ he said. “Mike Scioscia came over to my locker. It was Ramon Ortiz’s turn. I knew I had a chance, but I didn’t know for sure. It was pretty cool and I was excited about it. It worked out all right.’’
What was it like pitching to Bonds? As a rookie? In Game 7?
“At that time he was the best on the planet, for sure,’’ he said. “It was part of our deal not to let him beat us. I started two other games in that series and intentionally walked him three or four times, I’m sure. My hat from that game is in the Hall of Fame. Now that I’ve been in the league several years, you realize how hard it is to get there and you appreciate it more each year.’’
Two days ago Lester, Beckett, and Lackey posed for the cover of this year’s Red Sox yearbook.
“The ace, to me, is whoever pitches that day,’’ said Beckett.
“On your day, you act like the man,’’ said Lackey. “So it doesn’t matter. Those guys have been here. They’re proven here. They deserve to go 1 and 2. I’ll just fit in and do what I do.’’
It’s a great situation for Francona. Tito’s got a fistful of aces, three pitchers who have won the ultimate baseball game.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.