For all of the ancillary issues -- his velocity, his oblique -- it's still Beckett, and it's still October. And after the frustrations felt by the Red Sox in Game 2 at Tropicana Field last Saturday, it's Beckett with a point to prove. If Boston's Game 5 comeback wasn't enough to provide a confidence boost heading into Game 6 of the ALCS on Saturday night, getting Beckett back on the mound might well be.
"I have a lot of faith in Josh," Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia said Friday. "He's the best postseason pitcher I've ever seen."
Beckett's manager had a bit of that same sentiment.
"I think we're all excited about Josh pitching," Terry Francona said.
It's those watching Beckett who are getting excited, not Beckett himself. He's busy getting himself prepared.
"[Thursday's comeback] was really, really special, one way or the other," Beckett said, "but the big picture is still out there. We're trying to do something bigger than what we did last night."
That kind of focus still generates excitement about Beckett. After an up-and-down regular season, there remains a curiosity about how much firepower the right-hander has in his arm, but that mid-90s fastball with bite has been down around 91 or 92 mph more often lately. The strikeouts are slightly down, and the low hit totals haven't been the same in Beckett's fourth postseason.
Yet the postseason numbers go beyond pure stuff. Even with his struggles this October, Beckett remains unbeaten in seven starts since he lost Game 3 of the 2003 World Series as a member of the Florida Marlins against the Yankees. In three postseason starts with his team on the brink of elimination, Beckett is 2-0, having allowed two earned runs in 21 innings.
Before Beckett put his name into October lore with the Marlins, he was a pitcher with good stuff who hadn't yet put everything together for consistent wins. Now with his velocity in question, he's arguably dealing with the opposite.
TALE OF THE TAPE
|James Shields||Josh Beckett|
|2008 regular season|
|Overall||33 GS, 14-8, 3.56 ERA, 40 BB, 160 K||27 GS, 12-10, 4.03, 34 BB, 172 K|
|Key stat||4.00 SO/BB ratio (6 AL)||8.8 SO per 9 IP (2nd AL)|
|2008||2 GS, 1-1, 3.29||2 GS, 0-0, 11.57|
|Career||2 GS, 1-1, 3.29||11 GS, 6-2, 2.85|
|At Tropicana Field|
|2008||17 GS, 9-2, 2.59||3 GS, 0-1, 4.66|
|Career||43 GS, 20-8, 3.23||5 GS, 1-2, 3.90|
|Against this opponent (including ALCS)|
|2008 season||5 GS, 2-3, 4.98||6 GS, 2-1, 4.12|
|Career||9 GS, 2-5, 4.81||11 GS, 5-3, 4.06|
|Loves to face||Jacoby Ellsbury (1-for-16)||Carl Crawford (2-for-12)|
|Hates to face||Dustin Pedroia (6-for-13)||Evan Longoria (7-for-15)|
For Beckett's part, he says his injured oblique muscle has not had an effect on his pitching. Still, take away the radar guns and other innovations, and Beckett's seemingly obsessive will to compete remains. That he has yet to win in two starts this postseason only adds fuel to the fire, most expect, especially after a Game 2 no-decision in which the Red Sox scored six runs in their first five innings and still couldn't take advantage because the Rays' offense proved equally difficult for Beckett to hold down.
That ability to compete falls right in line with what the Red Sox's offense was able to do in the late innings of Game 5.
"He's not going to forget how to compete," Francona said of Beckett. "So even if he's going out there with maybe close to [his typical stuff] -- maybe it's not 96 [mph]; maybe it's 92, 93 -- he's still Beckett, and that doesn't mean he can't win. That doesn't mean he can't dominate."
Beckett couldn't dominate the Rays last week in large part because of extra-base hits -- three home runs in the first four innings, plus a trio of doubles -- adding up to eight runs by the time he was done in the fifth.
It marked by far the most damage against Beckett in a playoff start, but it also was the third time in his past 10 outings this season that Beckett has allowed seven or more runs. Interspersed amidst those outings, however, were three performances in which he lasted at least six innings and allowed one or no runs, and another outing in which he allowed two runs in 6 2/3 innings.
Two of those gems came against the Rays in successive starts in September, though both left Beckett with a no-decision in low-scoring losses.
Beckett vs. Rays in 2008
Even Rays manager Joe Maddon, while acknowledging a difference in Beckett's velocity, didn't note a difference in fire.
"This guy is one of the better big-game pitchers of recent times," Maddon said, "and you know he's going to be up for the challenge."
With the Red Sox's offense showing signs of an awakening on Thursday night, Boston would gladly take one-run ball from Beckett. But then, given Rays starter James Shields' history against the Red Sox at Tropicana Field, it could easily end up yet another low-scoring duel between these two.
If that's the case, the Red Sox will take their chances with Beckett, whether he's at 100 percent or not.
"When he's relaxed and comfortable and just executing pitches," Francona said, "there may not be a better pitcher in the game -- even when he's not throwing 97 [mph]. Again, there's been some things he's fighting, and some of it is inconsistency because of work, and it was hard for him. But again, if you have to give a ball to somebody in Game 6, I can't imagine not being excited to give him the ball."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.