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Monday, April 25, 2011
Josh Beckett leads red-hot Red Sox rotation

By Steve Berthiaume

This past weekend the Red Sox threw consecutive shutouts on the road for the first time since 2007, which was the last time Boston won a World Series. Josh Beckett, by no small measure, was the pitcher who got the Red Sox there in 2007. Now it's Beckett, along with Boston's other weekend starters in Anaheim, Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey, who are pitching the Red Sox back from their baffling start. Boston has won eight of its past nine games and with a win at Baltimore on Tuesday can reach .500, a turnaround that seemed almost unthinkable when the Red Sox were 2-10 only 10 days ago.

Sunday, Lackey was pitching on the same mound where he won Game 7 of the 2002 World Series as a rookie with the Angels. Lackey's eight scoreless innings completed Boston's first four-game sweep at Anaheim since June of 1980. Lackey's mediocre first season in Boston (14-11, 4.40 ERA), coupled with his five-year, $82.5 million free-agent contract, had turned him into the pitching version of J.D. Drew: overpaid, underperforming and with body language and a personality that rubbed Red Sox fans the wrong way. In his last two starts however, Lackey has delivered, allowing only one run in 14 innings.

One day earlier, Matsuzaka held the Angels to just one hit over eight innings, a performance that came only five days after he held the Blue Jays to a single hit over seven innings -- a pair of starts that Matsuzaka later agreed were his best since arriving from Japan. The nibbler who has driven Red Sox fans batty with high pitch counts and four-hour games showed he can be an ultra-efficient pitcher, attacking the strike zone with well-placed fastballs while getting ahead in counts. Matsuzaka is the first Red Sox pitcher with consecutive outings of at least seven innings and only one hit allowed since Pedro Martinez in 2002.

Most impressive has been Beckett's return to his 2007 form. In his last three starts, Beckett is 2-0, with a 1.17 ERA. During that span, he's struck out 24 batters in 23 innings while allowing only eight hits and holding opponents to a .107 batting average. Beckett's WHIP (walks plus hits per inning), which since that 2007 season has been 1.18, 1.19 and 1.53, is 0.78.

Beckett's biggest change has been the return of both his health and his curveball. Opponents are 0-for-31 in at-bats ending in an off-speed pitch, including 0-for-22 with 10 strikeouts on curveballs.

Curt Schilling, Beckett's teammate on Boston's '07 championship team, says Beckett's recovery from a back injury and his curveball command go hand-in-hand. "He's healthy again," Schilling said. "A bad back does not allow you to work low in the strike zone because you can't do a lot of things at the end of your delivery. You can't finish your breaking pitches, you can't keep them down."

Beckett's back troubles had also lowered his fastball velocity, which is once again consistently in the mid-90s. According to Schilling, "That makes all the difference in the world. Those breaking balls and him working down in the zone all has to do with the fact that he has a fastball to compliment those again. A 90-mile-per-hour fastball is good; 94 is a whole lot better with that curveball and that changeup that he's throwing."

The Red Sox have a streak of nine straight games in which their starting pitcher has gone at least five innings and allowed fewer than three runs. During this stretch, the Boston rotation has a 0.88 ERA. The last time Boston had such a string of nine straight starts? 1946 ... a year the Red Sox went to the World Series.

Follow Steve on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.