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This is Beckett's year

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  June 21, 2011 04:02 PM

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Perhaps it is an act of mercy that the Red Sox are not sending Josh Beckett to the mound tonight against the San Diego Padres, who score runs with about the same frequency as Adrian Gonzalez plays the outfield.

Ok, that's a slight exaggeration, but the feckless Friars are last in baseball in runs scored and slugging percentage. Sending the major league baseball leader in earned run average out against them would have been just cruel. It's bad enough they have to watch their former franchise first baseman, Gonzalez, tear it up for the Sox.

The official explanation for Beckett missing his start tonight is "intestinal turmoil," which has been traveling around the Red Sox clubhouse; "Always ready" Alfredo Aceves gets the nod in his place. His own stomach-churning aside, Beckett has chewed up and spit out opposing batters all season long, going 6-2 with a 1.86 ERA in 14 starts.

Remember when Beckett, who won six games all of last season, began the season as a fourth starter, the Sox so concerned about protecting his confidence after an awful 2010 campaign that they made certain he avoided pitching in the season-opening trip to Texas? That's as relevant now as the Sox' 2-10 start.

He is the Red Sox version of Tim Thomas, a presumed to be declining and overpaid player -- Beckett is in the first season of a four-year, $68-million extension -- who is responding to doubters with a career year. Who knows if Beckett can carry this into a possible postseason like Thomas did, but his renaissance has to be one of the primary storylines of the first half of the season.

Beckett has been Boston's best pitcher and arguably the best in all of baseball to this point. In addition to his microscopic ERA, opponents have an anemic .241 slugging percentage against him and a .498 OPS (on-base-plus-slugging). Both numbers lead the majors.

You never know what you're going to get with Beckett from one season to the next. The cantankerous Texan is as unpredictable as he is profane in his post-game press conferences. One year he pitches like a Cy Young candidate, and the next he pitches like a right-handed Matt Young. He is Jekyll and Hyde with cowhide.

But there seems to be a somewhat predictable numerical pattern to Beckett's behavior. It is odd-numbered years that bring out the best in Beckett. He is a biennial ace.

He made his major league debut in 2001. In 2003, he pitched the clinching game of the World Series for the Florida Marlins, capping a stellar postseason run (2.11 ERA) and was named World Series MVP. In 2005, he hit double-digits in wins for the first time in his career, going 15-8 with a 3.38 ERA in his final season in Florida. In 2007, he won 20 games for the first time, and he reprised his postseason dominance to pitch the Red Sox to a World Series. In 2009, he won 17 games, pitched a career-high 212 1/3 innings and struck out a career-high 199 batters.

In between, he had major blister issues surface in 2002, limiting him to 21 starts. In 2004, he was a pedestrian 9-9. In 2006, his first season with the Red Sox, he was the anti-Felix Hernandez, surrendering 36 home runs and posting an ERA of 5.01, yet still winning 16 games. In 2008, he went 12-10 with a 4.03 ERA, but a right elbow injury in August and an oblique injury prior to the playoffs robbed him of his postseason dominance.

In 2010, Beckett was 6-6 with a career-high 5.78 ERA and missed two months with a lower back strain. Channeling John Wasdin, "Way Back" Beckett served up 20 home runs in just 127 2/3 innings.

Return to 2011 and the 31-year-old Beckett might be having the most dominant season of his career and has reclaimed staff ace status. The zoom is back on his fastball. He has harnessed his cutter, and lefties aren't teeing off on him. Lefthanders hit .310 last year off Beckett with 15 home runs. This year, they're batting .176 with two homers.

In his last start, Beckett threw a complete game, one-hit, shutout against the Tampa Bay Rays, retiring the final 19 batters he faced. That pushed his record against the American League East this season to 5-0 with a 1.47 ERA in six starts.

By comparison, Beckett often looked like he was tossing batting practice to the Sox' AL East brethren last season, going 1-4 with a 6.95 ERA in 10 starts and allowing 11 home runs.

Beckett has surrendered just four home runs this year, and his 0.39 home runs/per nine innings pitched is tied for third-lowest in baseball. Beckett had surrendered four home runs by his fifth start last season, which came against Toronto on April 26th, 2010. He has not allowed a home run yet this season at Fenway Park, as all four homers he has served up have come on the road.

The biggest difference is that there have been no blow-ups this season from Beckett. He has been consistently excellent.

Beckett allowed five or more earned runs in eight of his 21 starts last season. He has not done it once this season in 14 starts. His 8.90 baserunners allowed per nine innings pitched is fourth in baseball, behind Tigers ace Justin Verlander (7.91), Jered Weaver of the Angels (8.36), and Cole Hamels of the Philadelphia Phillies (8.57). Good company.

Making Beckett's season even more impressive is that he has gotten an average of 3.82 runs per game during his starts. By comparison, Jon Lester leads the majors in run support at 7.77, which in part explains his nine wins in what has been by Lester's lofty standards a bit of an uneven season thus far.

If history holds up then so should Beckett's performance. This is his year.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...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.

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