Coming up aces
Beckett displays a winning hand as Sox tip Padres
SAN DIEGO -- Before yesterday's game, Red Sox manager Terry Francona hazarded the observation that Jake Peavy might be "the best right now." Though, he continued, his starter, Josh Beckett, hasn't pitched too poorly either. And then, showing confidence in his offense -- or perhaps prescience -- Francona said, "If [Peavy] gets hit, doesn't mean he's not."
Peavy got hit, and though it didn't detract from his status as one of the top pitchers in the game, it might have added to Beckett's. Adding to a rejuvenating season in which his record is 11-1 and his ERA 3.07, Beckett lasted eight innings in a 4-2 win in front of 44,449 in Petco Park, allowing two runs on six hits and a walk while striking out eight.
"He's obviously, if not the best, one of the best in the game," said Francona of Peavy, after the win had pushed the Red Sox' lead to 11 games over the Blue Jays in the American League East, a half-game less than their biggest bulge of the season. "We did make him work hard. Fortunately for us one of the other best is on our team. And he was great."
While Beckett only had significant trouble with the Padres in the fifth inning -- walk to Kevin Kouzmanoff, single by Geoff Blum, double by Terrmel Sledge -- Peavy wasn't so lucky, even with a Red Sox lineup that replaced Kevin Youkilis with Beckett and got a single from the swap.
By the time Peavy made his first plate appearance -- a sacrifice bunt in the third -- the Padres' ace had already thrown 72 pitches, given up enough well-placed singles to score three runs, and made Beckett's afternoon significantly easier.
"He pitched today the way he's pitched pretty much all year," Francona said of Beckett. "Explosive fastball. Good breaking balls. Some changeups at times in the game where it really kept them off the fastball.
"He was really good and he had to be. We knew coming in runs were going to be at a premium."
Even though Alex Cora's line single to right was the only solidly struck ball off Peavy in the third, the Red Sox strung together a blooper by Coco Crisp and singles between the first and second basemen (Cora had to hop over the one by David Ortiz) and a Manny Ramírez sacrifice fly to score three runs in a five-hit frame. Peavy was forced to throw 38 pitches in the inning, including 10 to Crisp.
The Red Sox added another run on a 422-foot home run by Jason Varitek, on a 3-0 count, to lead off the eighth against Scott Linebrink.
"Best ball I hit today I got out," Varitek said. "They gave me the swing-away 3-0. I don't always swing 3-0. I felt like I saw the ball well enough all day that if I got a pitch I could handle, I was looking for something to handle. I was able to put a good swing [on it]."
It was in the fifth, after the two-run double by Sledge with no outs, that Beckett had to be the most patient. After Sledge advanced to third on a ground out by Jose Cruz, Beckett left him 90 feet from tying the game when he induced a ground out by Michael Barrett and struck out Adrian Gonzalez on a curveball that looked just about perfect.
"That's when you need your best one," Beckett said. "You want to break it out in one of those situations. He's the guy over there in their clubhouse that you don't want to let beat you and he was up in a spot where he could have done that."
So, too, could a loud and long smash by Kouzmanoff to lead off the seventh. With the game still 3-2, Kouzmanoff crushed a hanging curveball toward the Western Metal Supply Co. building in the left-field corner, where Ramírez was there to haul it in on the warning track. Perhaps it would have been a home run in most other parks.
But Ramírez gathered it in, and Beckett stayed in long enough to get another at-bat and five more outs, before leaving the win in the capable hands of Jonathan Papelbon. Given a louder ovation than Padres closer Trevor Hoffman, who worked the top of the ninth, Papelbon struck out two to earn his 18th save.
And, in the process, give Beckett his major league-leading 11th win, a feat Varitek attributed to his ability to "mix up his pitches well and mix up his tilts on his fastball."
"Any time you're going up against Jake Peavy it's going to be a tough day," Beckett said. "Got a couple of big hits with guys in scoring position. Guys picked me up. To score three off him and the fourth, one off Linebrink, not expecting to even get that much on a day like that."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.