Perhaps in some ways, the Red Sox should hope Josh Beckett never grows up. Four years after throwing nothing but blanks as a 23-year-old in the Bronx to deliver a World Series for the Florida Marlins, the 27-year-old Beckett last night threw nothing but blanks in Boston to deliver a 4-0, complete-game win over the Los Angeles Angels in Game 1 of their best-of-five American League Division Series.
Beckett's four-hit, no-walk shutout, one in which he set down 19 batters in a row after a leadoff single by Chone Figgins, did more than evoke comparisons to the personal bests on his Facebook. It also awoke echoes of history, as he gave the Sox their most dominating performance in a series opener since El Tiante shut out the Cincinnati Reds, 6-0, in Game 1 of the 1975 World Series. Coincidentally, Beckett finished his labors in the same efficient amount of time Luis Tiant did, 2 hours 27 minutes, sending a sellout crowd of 37,597 home from the Fens in time to catch the highlights on the 11 o'clock news.
"From Day 1 when he was a rookie with the Marlins, you noticed he wanted to be great," said Mike Lowell, who was Beckett's teammate on the Marlins and played behind him last night, singling home a run in the third after home runs by Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz already had given the Sox a 3-0 lead against Beckett's fellow Texan, John Lackey.
"He doesn't just want to be pretty good," Lowell said. "He wants people to say, 'Man, this guy's an outstanding pitcher,' not 'He's got great stuff but he's 10-10.' You know he had that mind-set where he wants to be the best guy on the field when he takes the mound. That's something you absolutely want from your ace."
The Angels, swinging early and often, were no match for the relentless way in which Beckett threw strikes. Of his 108 pitches last night, 83 were thrown for strikes, and first-pitch strikes were the order of the day, helped by eager Angel hitters who did nothing to belie their free-swinging reputation. Of the 31 batters Beckett faced last night, 24 either took or swung at a first-pitch strike.
"He made it an easy night for us," said center fielder Coco Crisp, whose sliding catch of a sinking liner by Figgins was one of three outstanding defensive plays that benefited Beckett, who also got a diving stop from Lowell in the third to take a hit away from Mike Napoli and a sprawling catch by rookie Jacoby Ellsbury in the ninth after he'd come in as a defensive replacement for Manny Ramírez.
Of course, when a pitcher is commanding the way Beckett did last night, hitters hardly have the luxury of working the count.
"The game pace was the pace of Josh Beckett," said closer Jonathan Papelbon, who was throwing in the eighth inning with Hideki Okajima but took a seat while Beckett finished what he began, pointing at catcher Jason Varitek after Garret Anderson flied to Crisp for the game's final out. "When you're a starting pitcher and you can create that, that's a big thing to have in your corner."
Ortiz also pulled up a chair to watch Beckett work his way through the Angels, who did not advance another runner past first base after the first inning.
"Man, let me tell you, I watched some of the innings on TV on the screen we had downstairs," Ortiz said. "Even on TV he looked filthy. That is the Beckett everybody knows is capable of doing things in the game."
The Angels, who have lost 17 of their last 24 regular-season meetings with the Red Sox, were last seen here in October walking off the field after an Ortiz home run eliminated them from the 2004 Division Series in a three-game sweep.
Angels pitcher John Lackey, who couldn't contain his contempt for Fenway the last time he was here, his profane outburst caught on NESN when he gave up six first-inning runs in August, wasn't given a chance to get any more comfortable this go-round. Youkilis, whose sore right wrist was the source of some pre-series concern, made his first postseason hit one to remember, driving a home run into the left-field seats with one out in the first.
Youkilis then doubled in the third ahead of Ortiz's home run, his ninth in postseason play. The Sox added a third run in the inning when Ramírez drew a full-count walk, hustled to second on a wild pitch, and scored ahead of Lowell's single.
"It's felt a lot better as the days have progressed," Youkilis said of his wrist. "And I feel like I'm progressing well. The biggest thing is the wrist doesn't hurt as much now. It's playoff time and the adrenaline helps most."
Perhaps it's time to come up with a new handle for Ortiz, who tied Varitek for most postseason home runs in club history and has the franchise record for RBIs (30). Ortiz has at least one hit in 19 of his last 21 postseason games, including five home runs.
"Huge Papi?" Lowell said, going along with an outsider's suggestion. "You can call him whatever you want. I want him to keep hitting, and we keep moving on."
The Sox were held to just one hit the rest of the way after Lowell's single, J.D. Drew's bouncer off Lackey's glove, but the Angels did not come close to solving Beckett, a 20-game winner who put his Cy Young Award credentials on display.
Figgins, whose leadoff single glanced off the leather of second baseman Dustin Pedroia, was on the run when Orlando Cabrera grounded to short, and was on the move again when Guerrero grounded to third. But he got no farther, Beckett striking out Anderson on a checked swing. That was the first of eight strikeouts.
"It's a really cool thing," Beckett said, "to be able to go out there and be the only pitcher that pitches for your team that day. I don't think they ever thought about taking me out."
The teams take today off, then resume play tomorrow night, with the Sox sending Daisuke Matsuzaka to the mound in an effort to take a commanding lead in this series. The Sox in '04 won the first two games in Anaheim, then came home to finish off the Angels en route to their first World Series title in 86 years.
"Wear your green hat, Loogie," Lowell called out to shortstop Julio Lugo, whose lime-green beret and matching blazer combination was the only thing that came close to being as dazzling as Beckett last night.
"This kid," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, sounding much like Yankee manager Joe Torre four years earlier, "the story really tonight is Beckett. The guy pitched an incredible ballgame."
Gordon Edes can be reached at email@example.com.