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Sox counting on Beckett to deliver

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  October 9, 2009 11:30 AM

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As it turns out, the Red Sox need Josh Beckett to be their ace after all. And yet, four years into Beckett’s career with the Red Sox, he is as great an unknown as he has ever been.

So what are we going to get tonight, Sox fans? The Beckett of May, June and July, who went 11-2 with a 1.93 ERA over 16 starts, or the Beckett of late August and early September, who allowed a whopping 14 home runs in five starts? Will we get the Beckett of April, who had a 9.14 ERA in his final our outings of that month? Or will we get the Beckett or October, who, when healthy, has proven to be among the most dominating pitchers in the history of postseason play?

Please place your bets.

Round and round she goes, where she stops, nobody knows.

"Well, there's no issues physically at all," Beckett said during his press conference yesterday at Anaheim Stadium before the Los Angeles Angels wiped out Jon Lester and the Red Sox, 5-0, in Game 1 of the American League Division Series. "Obviously, last year was a little bit different. So as far as physically coming in, it's a lot better. Last month, it's been better than it was two months ago, so I'm just looking forward to going out there and doing what I'm supposed to do."

The Red Sox now find themselves is a situation similar to that of the St. Louis Cardinals yesterday morning. The Cardinals fired the first of their two big guns, Chris Carpenter, and lost Wednesday. They were preparing to fire the second, Adam Wainwright. The challenge for the Sox now is to avoid ending up where the Cardinals are today, one game from elimination and with their season resting on the shoulders of their No. 3 starter.

In between stands Beckett, who has won more regular season games during his time in Boston (65) than any pitcher in baseball but Roy Halladay (69), CC Sabathia (67), and Justin Verlander (65). Along the way, he all but carried the Sox to a World Series title, too. Beckett’s performance in October 2007 was one of the great postseason pitching efforts of all-time -- he went a perfect 4-0 with a 1.20 ERA in four starts -- and only added to the pitcher’s mystique.

To that point in his career, Beckett was 6-2 with a 1.73 ERA in 10 postseason appearances. Of all major league pitchers with least 70 postseason innings, only Mariano Rivera (0.76) and Christy Mathewson (1.06) had a better ERA. Statistically speaking, Beckett was better than Curt Schilling or Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson or Whitey Ford. And along with the two career World Series rings to prove it, Beckett had Most Valuable Player Awards in the 2003 World Series and the 2007 AL Championship Series.

Until last year, any team with Beckett on its roster had never lost a postseason series.

"He works really hard every day of the week, so when his day comes, he can go out and be ready to rise to the occasion. He doesn't have to try to push a button. He's prepared for what he's supposed to do,’’ Sox manager Terry Francona said when asked of Beckett’s ability to succeed in big games. "Because of his talent, he put that together in a lot of big situations. He's come up big."

Last year? With regard to Beckett, most of us toss it out. Just before the end of the regular season, Beckett strained an oblique muscle that hindered him throughout the playoffs. He had trouble cracking 90 miles per hour and was a shell of himself. Beckett still ended up pitching the Red Sox to a win in Game 6 of the ALCS before Matt Garza and the Tampa Bay Rays shut down the Sox and Lester in Game 7, but were all left to wonder whether the Sox might have been able to repeat had they boasted a healthy Beckett in the most important games of the year.

This year? Lester and Beckett are both healthy, as far as we know.

Nonetheless, the Red Sox interestingly decided to alter things. Lester’s strong finish coupled with Beckett’s late-season struggles prompted club officials to give Lester the ball for Game 1, though the Sox have made it clear that there were other factors involved in moving one of the best big-game pitchers of all time to Game 2.

"This way Lester gets an extra day, Beckett gets an extra day -- not one guy on regular rest and one guy on eight," said Francona, speaking for a Sox organization that generally has made decisions for the greater good. "It has as much to do with possibly being able to bring Beckett back for Game 5, too. We might be able to use these guys for four games. So that's part of it also."

Tonight, with the Red Sox facing a 1-0 series deficit and the Boston offense having failed to advance a runner to third base last night, they turn to Beckett for Game 2. A Boston win tonight evens the series at 1 and helps ensure that Lester will get another start, in Game 4, albeit on three days' rest. Clearly, that is the way the Red Sox are leaning. The Sox have Clay Buchholz lined up for Game 3 and have not named a Game 4 starter, as strong a statement as any on how they feel about Daisuke Matsuzaka.

In recent years, the Sox have dismissed any notion of bringing back any starter on three days' rest.

Four years ago, when the Sox acquired Beckett and Mike Lowell from the Florida Marlins, the idea was to replace the deteriorating Curt Schilling as the ace atop the Boston staff. As it turned out, with regard to October, the Sox replaced one big-game pitcher with another.

With the emergence of Lester, Beckett is here to win the big games more than he is to do anything else, particularly at a time when the Red Sox risk losing control over a series.

Tonight, with the Red Sox suddenly needing him as much as ever, Beckett gets his chance.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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