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Bob Ryan

Rays of light for Beckett

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / April 14, 2012
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If any team can offer testimony as to what kind of pitcher Josh Beckett can be, it’s the Tampa Bay Rays.

He allowed one hit against them twice last year, once in nine innings of work and the other in eight. He was 1-3 in the infamous Red Sox September of 2011, but you’re probably already capable of guessing against whom that lone W occurred. Yes, it was the Tampa Bay Rays.

So it probably came as something less than a major shock Friday afternoon when Josh Beckett, a bust in his first start against the Tigers, once again tamed the Men of Maddon, throwing eight very effective innings as the Red Sox opened up a rather important nine-game homestand with a 12-2 triumph over the Rays.

“That was good pitching,’’ lauded Carlos Pena, back for another stint with the Rays. “He was able to put his pitches today where we were just off the barrel of the bat.’’

It was a performance Beckett would have rejected as something less than manly when he was 23. That Beckett threw in the mid-to-high 90s. The 31-year-old Beckett who handled the Rays Friday never got above 92 miles per hour on the gun, but he was very consistent in the 89-91 range, and he was monotonously effective with his location once he found his proper rhythm in the fourth inning or so.

Staked to a 3-1 lead after the Red Sox scored three times off a struggling David Price in the third, Beckett settled into an attack mode, throwing innings full of strike one, strike one, strike one, and more strike ones.

In one stretch, the Rays swung at the first Beckett offering eight straight times and nine of 10. This allowed Beckett to record four single-digit pitch innings, including one dazzling run of seven, nine, and eight in the fifth, sixth, and seventh, respectively.

When he got through the seventh inning having thrown only 81 pitches, he had already performed a great service for his manager and his bullpen. He was lifted after a 13-pitch eighth in favor of Mark Melancon.

Almost forgot the thumb! What thumb?

Bobby Valentine had, in fact, dismissed the Beckett thumb as an issue during his pregame media session. And he had also expressed great optimism that his veteran righthander would be ready with his A game.

“He looked good this morning,’’ Bobby V reported. “He had a bounce in his step and I’m looking forward to a quality pitcher pitching a quality game.’’

But there is always ample reason to be skeptical about Beckett, of course, and thus when he went to the mound with the 3-1 lead and immediately went to a full count on Matt Joyce, any savvy fan was thinking, “Please don’t walk the leadoff man after they’ve given you the lead.’’ But fortune smiled kindly when Joyce ripped a low liner to right and Cody Ross made a diving grab that rated at least one star in any self-respecting scorebook.

Beckett did walk the next man, Ben Zobrist, but he would be one of only three base runners in the next 4 2/3 innings as Beckett assumed complete control of the game by demonstrating, well, complete control.

Continually swinging at the first pitch wasn’t producing any tangible results, but Pena explained that he and his mates had little choice. “If you know he’s going to throw a strike,’’ he reasoned, “why wait around?’’

“He had the great ability to make a pitch that looked pretty hittable . . . and it wasn’t,’’ explained Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey.

Manager Joe Maddon wasn’t upset. “I thought we had good at-bats,’’ he declared. “I wasn’t displeased with the at-bats. I thought our approach was pretty good, but it just didn’t work out. We hit some balls pretty well. It was a good baseball game that went bad at the end.’’

This last reference was to the somewhat bizarre Red Sox eighth, when the home team responded to the strains of “Sweet Caroline’’ by having their first 10 men reach base against Tampa Bay relievers Joel Peralta and Josh Lueke. Maddon was a conspirator in his own team’s demise by twice playing the infield in with the bases loaded after the Sox had grabbed a 6-1 lead and twice being burned by cheesy hits that would have been gobbled up if the infield was playing in a normal alignment. The eight-run inning kinda stifled the competition.

The one curious aspect of Beckett’s performance was that he went 29 batters into the game before striking out anyone. Yes, that’s pitching in a Madduxian sense, but it’s not the way Josh Beckett ordinarily does it, so we need to see more of him to know just what exactly it all meant.

What it meant Friday was that he had the Rays under control without needing a strikeout pitch.

“He made us swing the bat,’’ Pena said. “That’s good pitching.’’

Early season stats are basically irrelevant, but it was amusing to watch the near convergence of ERAs in this one. Price began the day with an ERA of 2.84 and finished with one of 4.82. Beckett began the day with an ERA of 13.50 and finished with one of 5.68. One more bad inning out of Price and Beckett could have passed him.

But really, what did this Beckett performance mean? Has he really discovered something? Does he now just mesmerize the Rays, and only the Rays? We ought to have a clearer picture next Wednesday evening when he takes the mound against the Texas Rangers.

When he was suffering through that five-homer game in Detroit, he would have had to improve by 25 percent just to be mediocre. Let’s see if the stuff and the approach he had Friday works against the powerful Rangers.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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