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Beckett's no-no could lead to Dodgers run

5/26/2014

Josh Beckett took one last deep breath, his 128th of the game. Full count to Chase Utley, two outs in the bottom of the ninth, a no-hitter on the line.

Do you overthink the moment? Do you try to throw the perfect pitch? Do you just rear back and let the baseball gods decide your fate?

Beckett kept it simple: A fastball down the middle at the knees. Hit it if you can. Utley froze, couldn't pull the trigger, turned and walked to the dugout. Strike three. Beckett's first no-hitter, the first for the Dodgers since Hideo Nomo in 1996, the first of 2014 and a reminder that the beauty of no-hitters is you never know when they're going to pop up.

The last couple of years, I've heard a lot of grumbling that no-hitters are no longer special since we've had so many of them. We had three last season, but seven in 2012, including three perfect games. We had three in 2011, but six in 2010, including Roy Halladay's in the postseason.

Too many no-hitters? Ridiculous. They're still fun because they're unpredictable and turn just another day in baseball into an exciting day. I love that every no-hitter has a great story behind it: For this one, we have the aging veteran in the twilight of his career, a guy who had battled injuries and ineffectiveness the past two seasons, coming off surgery in 2013 to repair pressure on a nerve in his neck.

Beckett made eight starts last season and went 0-5. Nobody really knew what to expect when he came to spring training. The Dodgers signed Dan Haren and Paul Maholm as free agents to provide rotation depth. But Beckett has been healthy and he's been good (3-1, 2.43 ERA). And then we got Sunday.

Beckett threw 128 pitches, 80 for strikes, the most pitches he's thrown in a major league game since ... well, ever. His previous high had been 126, once in 2012 and once in 2004. He walked three and struck out six. In the ninth inning, he got Tony Gwynn Jr. on a pop-up to shortstop and Ben Revere on a grounder to first, Beckett covering for the putout. He walked Jimmy Rollins on a 3-2 curveball. Maybe that's what Utley was looking for, another curveball. Catcher Drew Butera had gone out to talk with Beckett after the 3-1 curve to Utley was called for strike two. He'd thrown five fastballs in the inning but eight curveballs. Do you work carefully to Utley, the Phillies' best hitter? Did Beckett have anything left if he walked Utley?

The pitch to Utley was 94 mph. It was Beckett's fastest pitch of the day.

Dodgers announcer Charley Steiner, perhaps caught up in the moment, called it the greatest game Beckett ever pitched. I'm not sure I'd agree with that. Beckett, after all, pitched a five-hit shutout against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium to clinch the 2003 World Series. Earlier, in the NLCS against the Cubs with the Marlins facing elimination, he pitched a two-hit, 11-strikeout shutout.

That was a different Beckett than the one we see now. That was a 23-year-old kid from Texas with the monster fastball and cocky attitude that had made him the second overall pick in the 1999 draft. Now he's crafty 34-year-old, working in the low 90s, mixing in more cutters and changeups then he did as a fireballing youngster. Back with the Marlins and during his early years with the Red Sox, Beckett would throw his fastball more than 60 percent of the time. That percentage has slowly declined, dropping to less than 40 percent his year. He doesn't blow you away any longer.

Actually, it makes you wonder: What if Beckett had learned to "pitch" earlier in his career? The promise of that 2003 postseason perhaps created unrealistic expectations for his career. He's been inconsistent -- posting a 5.01 ERA his first year with the Red Sox but winning 20 games and finishing second in the Cy Young voting his second season in Boston. That was 2007, when he further cemented himself as a big-game pitcher when he tossed his third career postseason shutout, won both his starts in the ALCS and then his lone start in the World Series as the Red Sox swept the Rockies. He wasn't as effective in the 2008 and 2009 postseason, and then had the chicken-and-beer issues with the Red Sox in 2011 and Boston happily shipped him out of town in that 2012 blockbuster trade with the Dodgers.

Will he get another chance in the postseason? The Dodgers are difficult team to peg right now. They're 27-24, below expectations, even though they've had strong performances from Beckett, Zack Greinke (7-1, 2.01 ERA), Yasiel Puig (hitting .349/.438/.623), Adrian Gonzalez (.277, 12 home runs) and Dee Gordon (.293, 30 stolen bases). The rotation, despite great work from Beckett and Greinke, has been mediocre overall as Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu have both missed time. The bullpen has struggled with a 4.15 ERA.

This could be the time the Dodgers make a nice run, however. The rotation is now intact. Puig is on fire. Sixteen of their next 23 games are at home (although the Dodgers are just 9-13 at home). Beckett's strong start is just another reason to still think the Dodgers are as good as everyone predicted back in March.