It goes without saying that if the Red Sox are going to stay in the playoff chase and make it a photo finish they need Josh Beckett to pitch more like an ace and less like Sun-Woo Kim. Beckett, who takes the mound tonight against the Angels, is like the Rubik's Cube of Boston sports. He's just tough to figure out.
Is he an ace or not? Is he hurt or not? Is he a good investment or not? The answers to all those questions are like the New England weather. Give it a minute, and it changes.
Right now, Beckett is not an ace. He has allowed 21 hits and 13 earned runs across 9 2/3 innings in his last two starts. He's not hurt (at least we don't think so). And the four-year, $68 million contract extension the Sox gave him at the start of the season looks like a dubious investment -- cash for clunkers.
In 13 starts this year, Beckett, who missed more than two months with a lower back strain, has had six games in which he allowed five or more earned runs, including his last two outings against Rangers and Yankees, key games for the Sox in this summer of survival.
Beckett is supposed to be the Sox' counterpart and counterpunch to Yankees ace CC Sabathia. Instead some of his numbers skew more like another Pinstripe pitcher, a fellow mystifying former Florida Marlins flamethrower, A.J. Burnett.
Consider this: From 2008 until now, Beckett has allowed six or more earned runs in a start 13 times. That's one more time than Tim Wakefield and ties him with Zach Duke and Bronson Arroyo for the fifth-most in baseball. Burnett and Livan Hernandez are the co-leaders in the category with 17 such occurrences.
Up the margin to seven or more earned runs in a start from 2008 to now, and Beckett is tied for second with Hernandez. It's happened to the cantankerous Texan 10 times, including four this year.
That is an alarming trend or a reality check. Maybe Beckett has been miscast as elite, when he's merely very good. That's not a crime, but it can cause confusion and consternation with a player.
We've seen this before. When Drew Bledsoe was here he was viewed as an elite quarterback. The truth is that the gentlemanly Bledsoe was never any such thing. He was a prolific passer and a tremendous talent who led the Patriots to a Super Bowl appearance, but he wasn't among the creme de la creme of NFL QBs. Joe Thornton skated a similar path in Boston, billed as the savior when he was just a very good player.
I was all for giving Beckett, 30, the dough, based on the premise that you already knew he could pitch against the loaded lineups in the American League East and that he could beat good teams. That may have been a false premise. In seven starts this season against top-hitting teams Texas, Toronto and the Yankees, Beckett is 0-2 with an 11.80 ERA and 59 hits allowed in 34 1/3 innings.
His best effort is an April 16 no-decision against the Tampa Bay Rays, who are third in the majors in runs scored. In that April contest, Beckett went seven innings, allowing four hits and a single run while striking out eight. However, the Maddon Men have also been no-hit twice this season and were one out away from being no-hit earlier this month by Toronto hurler Brandon Morrow, who struck out 17 Tampa Bay batters.
Chalk it up to an off and injury-affected year for Beckett, who does his best work in the postseason anyway.
Except even during last year's commendable 17-6, 3.86 ERA campaign, Beckett had problems pitching in the offense-heavy AL East. He was 2-1 with a 5.34 ERA against the Yankees in five starts. In two starts against Toronto he was touched up for 12 earned runs in 10 1/3 innings. The Rays raked against Beckett too. In five outings, Beckett was 2-1 with a 5.02 ERA.
It's still too early to condemn the contract extension because the fact remains that Beckett is in the last year of the extension he signed with the Sox in 2006. Back then when Beckett was in the midst of as season in which he served up 36 home runs and finished with an ERA above 5.00, few thought that contract was a wise investment either.
A year later when Beckett was winning 20 games and owning October (4-0 with a 1.20 ERA in the 2007 postseason) no one was complaining.
Then he was anointed as an ace, which is one of those titles that is easier to earn than it is to live up to or lose. The ace appellation comes with expectations, perhaps, ones that aren't fair to pin on Beckett any longer. You wonder if the oblique injury in 2008, which Beckett bravely pitched through in the playoffs, was a turning point in his career, or if 2007 was just a career year that set the bar too high.
For now, Beckett remains enigmatic. But what is clear is that it is time for him to stand on the mound and deliver for the Sox.
He might not be an ace, but he's still plenty good enough to help keep the Red Sox in the playoff race.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.