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Beckett's season is beyond a comeback

LOS ANGELES -- For a while, it was a fun little narrative, the aging pitcher reinventing himself and resurrecting a career gone adrift.

It made for a nice newspaper article or blog post. Then, when Josh Beckett just kept doing it, his ERA remaining stuck week after week among the National League elite, it started seeming more like a feature-length magazine profile. You could expand on the nuances of pitching sequences, the weird surgery he underwent and the evolution -- or is it devolution? -- of the curveball in modern baseball.

Now, who knows, maybe it's a movie.

Just don't call it a comeback any longer. He's simply back. Judging by Beckett's 2.11 ERA, third in the National League, and the fact he just stared down the man who might be the best right-hander in the league, Adam Wainwright, the facts say Beckett is now the guy other teams don't want to face.

He pitched another seven shutout innings in the Los Angeles Dodgers' 1-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday, giving him 14 shutout innings in a row, which paired with that no-hitter back in May and the fact he didn't buckle as Wainwright breezed through the Dodgers' lineup most of the night, gives you a pretty good indication he's up to the task of keeping this thing going for a while. He might not be an ace since the Dodgers already have two, but he's a lot more than a three.

"He's like himself of old, I think," Wainwright said. "He threw a no-hitter. That doesn't happen by chance."

Of course, Beckett isn't quite like Beckett of old, or rather young. He can't reach back and throw his fastball 98 mph when he gets a runner on third base. It has been well-documented by now. He pitches backward nowadays, throwing his curveball more than just about any starter in baseball, about one-third of the time, which makes a 92 mph fastball look as if it's a bit feistier than that.

You can wax on about Beckett for a while. He must have wanted to re-establish himself pretty badly to be pitching this well less than a year after an unpredictable surgery, in which doctors removed a small rib from the vicinity of his right shoulder to relieve pressure on a nerve. But there's also a simpler explanation to all of this. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly just blurted it out at one point in his postgame comments.

"To be honest with you, guys just don't hit the curveball anymore," Mattingly said.

Beckett, Wainwright, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke: all with devastating curveballs, all among the best pitchers in the league.

Mattingly's pitching coach, Rick Honeycutt, concurs with Mattingly's theory. It's fair to say they've discussed it. In fact, he has convinced another Dodgers starter, Dan Haren, to break his curveball out of mothballs, and it has helped Haren navigate through a pretty solid first half despite throwing a fastball that rarely registers above 87 mph.

"It's a pitch that's dying and guys don't see it enough," Mattingly said. "Plus, most guys don't change speeds with it."

Beckett didn't argue with Mattingly's theory, though he pointed out that the Cardinals actually have a lineup that hits curveballs pretty well, singling out Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina for their ability to hit decent breaking balls.

Beckett didn't give himself much credit at all for the concurrent pitching clinics he and Wainwright put on. He credited the Dodgers fielders. Miguel Rojas has changed the dynamic in the Dodgers' infield when he is at shortstop. Matt Kemp preserved the scoreless tie by throwing out Allen Craig at the plate in the seventh inning. Rojas kept a tag on pinch runner Peter Bourjos' leg and got a huge out after Bourjos came off the bag following a stolen base in the ninth.

With the throwback win -- pitching and defense -- the Dodgers trimmed one more game off the San Francisco Giants' rapidly shrinking lead. They're only two games out now. On June 8, they were 9½ games back.

"I knew it was going to be tough," Beckett said.

He was talking about matching up with Wainwright, but he may as well have been talking about his own comeback, not to mention his team's.