Back to being king (for a day?)
Beckett's 9-K shutout and Boston's 5th straight win should muffle the boos for now
BOSTON -- Josh Beckett's days of being "King of the Hill," as Bobby Valentine called him Tuesday, may not come with the regularity they once did.
But when it does happen, the way it did Tuesday when Beckett struck out seven of the first 11 batters he faced, fanned nine in all, and delivered seven shutout innings against the Seattle Mariners, it knocks the teeth out of any argument that the Red Sox would benefit by parting ways with their famously stubborn right-hander. An argument, by the way, that is not being seriously entertained in the halls of 4 Yawkey Way.
"Josh Beckett is a guy I want pitching for me," said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who made the most of his 2012 debut behind the plate with Beckett on Tuesday, guiding him through an outing in which the Mariners managed just four singles and advanced only one baserunner to third.[+] EnlargeElsa/Getty ImagesBeckett had his strongest performance of the season on Tuesday against the Mariners.
That came in the sixth when Ichiro Suzuki stole second and third when no one cared, there being two outs and the Sox up by four runs.
Four lousy singles, mind you, off a pitcher who began the day having given up more extra-base hits (10 doubles, nine home runs) than singles (18) this season. The Mariners are offensively challenged, which is the PC way of saying that on most days, manager Eric Wedge's lineup is comprised of Ichiro and the Eight Dwarfs.
The Mariners came close once to sending one ball off the premises, when Justin Smoak golfed a long drive over the right-field foul pole in the second, a home run bid that drew a second look on replay from the umpiring crew. But after making everyone stick around in a light but steady rain for a few extra minutes, they upheld their original call of foul. Smoak, naturally, wound up striking out.
The inferior opposition doesn't diminish the quality of Beckett's effort, just as it didn't when Jon Lester breezed through the same sorry lot the night before. It does suggest, however, that Beckett, who celebrated his 32nd birthday Tuesday, will need to have a few more of these before satisfying questions about whether he can remain in the first rank of pitchers. A place, need we remind you, he occupied for much of last season until September robbed him of all the goodwill he had accumulated.
"The minute I saw him throw the first pitch, I knew he was going to have a good game," said David Ortiz, who made Beckett's job easier with his eighth home run and a surprise bunt single that resulted in another run. "The attitude, he got himself going. We needed that."
Before the game, Valentine reinforced the solidarity message, saying that if he could, he'd pitch Beckett more than once every five days. Most folks would probably be satisfied if Beckett just took his regular turn, which became an issue when he was skipped for a tight lat muscle, a condition that did not preclude Beckett from heading to the links with teammate Clay Buchholz a day after Valentine said he was a no-go.
That morphed, partly by Beckett's own doing, into a referendum on whether a player has to answer for what he does in his free time -- Beckett, of course, digging in his heels on the "con" side. Many outside the confines of the Sox clubhouse, meanwhile, thought that if Beckett had been just a bit more forthcoming on the issue -- addressing, for example, the question of how a physical condition can keep a guy from pitching but not from swinging a golf club -- he could have avoided the spectacle that he likened to being in a reality show.
Nothing buries an issue faster than winning, of course, and now that the Sox have reeled off five in a row, each featuring a solid start, some of Beckett's loudest critics might offer to caddy for him if it means the Sox keep this up.
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"He stood out there and wanted everyone to know he was Josh Beckett, including the opposition," Valentine said. "He belongs on that hill. That's his saddle. He looked very comfortable today."
Beckett, who maxed out at 93.3 mph according to Brooksbybaseball.net and averaged just under 92 with his fastball, has enough velocity to win. A drop in velocity just means you can't afford to make as many mistakes with your location.
"That Daniel Bard heat," as he called it, "I haven't thrown in a long time."
Beckett showed plenty of confidence in his four-seamer Tuesday, throwing it 40 percent of the time, then dividing the rest of his pitches -- change, curve, cutter, and two-seamer -- almost equally. After complaining that his pitches were too flat in his previous start, he said he made the necessary mechanical adjustments -- getting his hand on top of the ball -- to resolve that issue.
And mentally, he clearly appeared in a better place, having found comfort in those who circled the wagons around him when most needed.
"My family's been great, as they always are," he said. "I heard from some other baseball guys and stuff like that. It's been nice."
King of the hill? A much better perch, to be sure, than where he was a week ago.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
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