Ace's stuff fit for the kings
Now that's what an Ace looks like.
When the Red Sox were brutally bounced from the playoffs by the White Sox two years ago, the universal opinion was that the team really never had a No. 1 pitcher to begin with.
They've got one now.
"Really," said Angels skipper Mike Scioscia, "the story tonight is Josh Beckett. The guy pitched an incredible ballgame. We didn't have many good looks at him."
How good was Josh Beckett last night? Depending on your depth of Red Sox postseason knowledge, it was either the best postseason pitching performance since Luis Tiant in '75, Jim Lonborg in '67, Boo Ferriss in '46, or perhaps even Babe Ruth in either - take your pick - 1918 (six-hit shutout in Game 1) or 1916 (the 14-inning, 2-1 conquest of the Dodgers).
But why stop there? You can throw in Smoky Joe Wood in 1912 and Big Bill Dinneen in 1903. It's right up there, somewhere. All any of the 37,597 need to know is there have been 52 postseason games in Fenway Park and they have a ticket stub testifying they have seen one of the best pitching shows ever put on in this ballpark.
This was a four-hit, no-walk, eight-strikeout complete-game dazzler in which Beckett retired 19 consecutive men following Chone Figgins's game-opening single. You know that oft-quoted word "command"? Well, Josh Beckett had command of all his pitches and was in command from start to finish. No way anyone was beating Josh Beckett last night.
"I mean, he just went out there and executed his pitches, in my opinion, better than he has at any point in the season," said manager Terry Francona. "He attacked the strike zone with all his pitches."
The fastball was consistently in hard-to-reach places at speeds generally ranging from 93 to 95 miles per hour. Both his curve and changeup had people waving pathetically. Figgins hit a 3-2 pitch for a single to center in the first and Beckett never went to three balls again. That's something a Bill Lee used to do, but Bill Lee never threw 90 in his life (although he once won a complete game with 78 pitches in which he reached zero three-ball counts).
Beckett is not known for his efficiency, but once he got locked in, he was an absolute strike-throwing machine. He had a 10-pitch fourth, a 13-pitch fifth, and an eight-pitch sixth. In one midgame stretch, he got five outs on 13 pitches and six on 17. From the third through the eighth, he threw 21 of 23 first-pitch strikes. Think Greg Maddux with electric stuff.
"I was ahead of a lot of guys, you know," said the 27-year-old righthander. "And they got a lot of guys who foul a lot of pitches off. And I just didn't want to get wrapped up in trying to strike out a lot of guys, because those are the at-bats that will end up killing your pitch count and you're out after 5 1/3 because you've got 120 pitches."
When he needed good defense, he got good defense. Third baseman Mike Lowell took a hit away from Mike Napoli in the third with a diving stop to his left (too bad the national TV audience had to settle for a replay from the late-returning folks at TBS). Coco Crisp made his 32d? 57th? 79th? four-star play of the year, taking a hit away from Figgins with a sliding grab of a sinking liner in the sixth.
And talk about serendipity. Francona installs Jacoby Ellsbury as a defensive replacement for Manny Ramírez to start the ninth, and sure enough, that man Figgins, the first man up, loses another base hit when Ellsbury makes a very nice grab on another sinking liner. (Manny's chances of catching that ball? Next question.)
Of course, the baseball world has seen this before. This was Beckett's third career postseason shutout, the first two coming four years ago when he was a 23-year-old sensation for the Florida Marlins. He shut out the Cubs in the National League Championship Series and then made an everlasting reputation for himself by shutting out the Yankees on five hits in the deciding Game 6 of the World Series while working on three days' rest.
Asked to compare that performance with last night's, Beckett seemed astonished anyone would even think about going there. "You know, they're not similar," he declared. "They're similar because of the results. I don't think anything else is similar. I think I got a lot of ground balls tonight. I had a lot of fly balls that night."
Well, here's what was similar: He was dominant. The Yankees weren't going to hit him that night if they had stayed out there until midnight, and the Angels weren't going to do much with him last night unless he decided to pull an Eddie Feigner and pitch blindfolded from second base.
This being 2007, and this being the Era of the Pitch Count, the great guessing game began in the seventh. Will Francona & Co. let him finish? The anxious crowd saw Jonathan Papelbon and Hideki Okajima loosening up in the eighth, but they cheered loudly when they saw Beckett bounding out of the dugout for the ninth, having thrown 100 pitches even.
"I thought it was pretty obvious he was fine," said Francona.
"You know," said Beckett, "I don't think they ever thought about taking me out. It was one of those deals it was kind of known throughout the dugout that I was going back out there."
Beckett didn't mess around. Three pitches to Figgins (the Ellsbury catch). One pitch to Orlando Cabrera (foul to third). Two pitches to the great Vladimir Guerrero (single to center). And one pitch to Garret Anderson (warning-track fly to Crisp).
You know how people like to tell athletes to "act like they've been there before"? That's what Beckett did. Because he has. To Josh Beckett, a showcase game like this is just another night at the office.
"I'm just trying to execute pitches until somebody takes the ball out of my hand and the game's over," he said.
But this was one night the manager didn't tell him his night was over. The batters did. They couldn't hit him.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.