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Jackie MacMullan

Big-game Beckett strikes again

Because this series is in its infancy, it's far too soon to make grand pronouncements about the local baseball team, no matter how dominating your Boston Red Sox appeared last night in dismantling the highly regarded Cleveland Indians, 10-3, in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.

But it is not premature to discuss the growing playoff legend of one Joshua Patrick Beckett.

Boston's No. 1 starter once again stared down the opposing team's ace, in this case the acclaimed C.C. Sabathia, and just as he did against Angels stud John Lackey, Beckett elevated his performance to the heights required to excel in postseason play, while his counterpart (and primary competition for the Cy Young Award) wilted from the pressure applied by a lineup fortified by the irrepressible duo of David Ortiz and Manny Ramírez.

Beckett's outing was not as pristine as his shutout against the Angels 10 days ago, but when he has his fastball, his curve, and his changeup working, he can stymie lineups for critical stretches, and that's precisely what he did last night.

As a result, for the second time in as many series, Beckett has drawn first blood by outdueling the best the other guys have to offer.

"When you're facing a guy like C.C. or [Fausto] Carmona, you better have someone you believe in," said Sox manager Terry Francona. "We do."

After surrendering a solo homer to Travis Hafner in the first inning, causing his club to fall behind, 1-0, Beckett bore down and retired the next 10 batters. During that sequence, he struck out four, induced four ground balls, and coaxed Asdrubal Cabrera into a harmless popup and retired Kenny Lofton on a liner to left field.

"He was real good," acknowledged Cleveland manager Eric Wedge. "He dropped that breaking ball in there, and he was doing a good job of going left to right at the plate with his fastball. He elevates when he needs to. He had that long at-bat against Hafner and decided to break out that changeup after about 10 or 11 pitches and a 3-2 count, so that says a lot about him, too."

That skirmish with Hafner occurred in the fourth inning, shortly after Boston busted out to a 5-1 lead. Hafner, a dangerous hitter who had already made Beckett pay for leaving a 96-mile-per-hour fastball up over the plate, was battling to get the Indians back in the fray. Becket had him at 0-2, but Hafner waited him out, and after Beckett threw ball three in the dirt, then a fastball that Hafner fouled off for the fifth time in the at-bat, the count was full.

Boston's stud righthander then reared back and . . . caught Hafner swinging at strike three with the changeup.

It was the closest Beckett came to giving up a walk. He still hasn't relinquished a base on balls in 15 innings this postseason, a welcome departure from last year's often arduous season, when he walked a career-high 74.

"I think my control was [always] there," said Beckett. "I think it was more me trying not to give in or make the perfect pitch every time. This year I think in certain situations I pretty much decided that my stuff is good enough. I'm going to trust it."

Not a bad strategy, even when he had to grind it out a bit, as he did last night.

Beckett's second mistake was in the sixth, when he hung a curveball to Casey Blake, who promptly deposited the ball in the left-field corner. Cabrera drove him home with a one-out single, but then Beckett shut the door by retiring Hafner and Victor Martinez.

By that point, the score was 8-2 and Beckett was again the beneficiary of a generous dollop of run support, which he also enjoyed throughout the regular season. It's kind of nice when Ortiz and Ramírez are on your side. The two reached base safely in 10 out of 10 plate appearances.

"Josh was good tonight," said catcher Jason Varitek. "He wasn't quite as effective as he was in his last start, but he was in the vicinity of where he was going, and that's the key."

In other words, even a less-than-perfect Beckett can spin a postseason gem.

When the Red Sox acquired Beckett in November 2005, his postseason résumé was of great interest to discerning fans in these parts, who instantly developed a crush on him in 2003 when he spun a shutout against the hated New York Yankees in the World Series to clinch the title for Florida and postseason MVP honors for himself.

It was one of three shutouts he has pitched in the playoffs. He is quickly becoming as reliable as Larry Bird in the fourth quarter, Ortiz with men on base, or Tom Brady just about any time he tosses the football in the direction of Randy Moss.

Pitching coach John Farrell has discussed Beckett's acute understanding of his place in baseball history and his interest in further cementing his legacy as a big-game pitcher, as his teammate Curt Schilling has done throughout his career. Beckett rarely publicly addresses such topics, and sidestepped it deftly again last night.

"I'm just out there trying to execute pitches," he said. "You know, there's a lot of media and stuff that goes into this thing, and if you start buying into that, all it does is create distractions."

Beckett's career playoff numbers now include a 4-2 mark. He's given up just 12 earned runs in 57 2/3 postseason innings. He is the closest thing to a sure thing the Red Sox have on the mound, and he will see the Indians again soon.

His work was done after six innings last night, a decision that made perfect sense on a cold, windy evening in a game that was, for the most part, already in hand. The low pitch count immediately ignited speculation about whether the Red Sox would bring their go-to guy back for Game 4 Tuesday on three days' rest, or pitch him in Game 5 on five days' rest. Either way, the light workload provided the Sox with options that bode well for their rotation.

At this moment, there is no better strategy than simply handing Beckett the ball and getting out of the way.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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