Josh Beckett has said all along, as the victories have mounted and the expectations have increased, that his focus has never been on winning 20 games. When he had won 17, he wanted the 18th. At 18, he wanted 19. That magical number for a pitcher, the one that is becoming more rare, was just one more game in a string of them that, in the end, would lead the Red Sox to the postseason.
Now, more than ever, the Sox need Beckett thinking that way. Because while the individual accomplishment is nice, the team clearly needs a win. Having lost four straight games - including a sweep by the Blue Jays in Toronto that reduced their American League East lead to 1 1/2 games over the Yankees - the Sox need Beckett to be the pitcher he has been all season. That is, they need him to remain reliable: The Sox are 10-3 when Beckett has started after a loss.
"I think there's a level of pride in here," Jason Varitek said. "We still want a chance to win that division. We want to be able to do that, along with ultimately getting into the postseason. But ultimately, even before that, we want to play good baseball."
Beckett's 20th win would go a long way toward starting the Red Sox on that path. To that end, he needs the offense to begin to produce more than it did in three disappointing games in Toronto, in which it scored a total of five runs.
So, now that the pressure is on, the losses have piled up, and it has been established that Beckett needs to play stopper yet again, this is the time to talk about what he could achieve tonight against the Devil Rays' Scott Kazmir. For all his success in his relatively short career, Beckett is on the verge of winning 20 for the first time. He's already established a career high, despite missing two starts with an avulsion on his finger.
"He's been such a model of consistency this year for us," pitching coach John Farrell said. "It's a [heck] of a feat for him, if he does achieve it.
"I don't think you ever go into a year, or the start of the season, thinking, 'Here's a 20-game winner.' He possesses the physical abilities, and over time, I became much more aware that he possesses the other intangibles, the mental capacity, the - I know it becomes a cliché - but the ability to remain focused on the pitch at hand. What he should be most proud of is that, as things have gone well, he has not taken things for granted or abandoned an approach that has worked."
With his 19-6 record, his 3.20 ERA, his 180 strikeouts and 38 walks, his 15 home runs allowed (as opposed to 36 last season), Beckett has put his name up with C.C. Sabathia and Chien-Ming Wang, whom he defeated last Saturday, as candidates for the Cy Young Award. But he has also set himself apart.
Tonight Beckett can become baseball's first 20-game winner since four pitchers (Dontrelle Willis, Chris Carpenter, Bartolo Colon, and Roy Oswalt) did it in 2005. Though Johan Santana and Wang won 19 last season, no one hit the magic mark.
"It means a lot the first time," said Curt Schilling, who has won at least 20 games three times, most recently with the Red Sox in 2004. "The great thing about it is all the lessons you learn along the way. For the first time, how long the season is, how consistently good you have to throw. I mean, there's so many things that go into it. But No. 1 for me is health. He's taken the ball every time, for the most part.
"I just know that the odds against winning 20 have gotten bigger, especially here, because of the schedule that they have us on, trying to stretch it out, give him rest. He's going to start less games than other guys. That makes it harder, the division we play in, the competition we play, but it's special."
Exclusive, too. Especially if a pitcher does it more than once. Toronto's Roy Halladay, who won 22 games and the Cy Young in 2003, had 19 wins in 2002, but hasn't approached 20 again. He knows how difficult it is to do it once, let alone multiple times. But the 20-win mark, while a gauge of success, is far from everything.
"I think it's something, if a guy does it a couple times, it just kind of puts you in a different class," Halladay said. "You look at guys who have won 20 games. There's a lot of good pitchers who have done it once, and some really good ones who have done it more than that. It's definitely a certain level that you reach. There's no question, it's not a fluke. You have to be pretty good to be able to do it.
"For me, looking at a guy like that, it's a number. He's obviously a great pitcher who's accomplished a lot in his career. He's made a name for himself regardless of that. I think it's a nice number, a nice accolade that he can carry with him. He's already defining himself as an elite pitcher regardless."
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.