Josh Beckett insisted his pitches simply missed, just barely, nothing more. Beckett had transformed from baseball's reigning king of the postseason to just another pitcher not, he said, because of the injury that pushed him from Game 1 starter in the American League Division Series to last night's Game 3.
"Felt fine," Beckett repeated, time and again, every time someone found a new way to ask him about his right oblique strain. Never did it factor. Never was he concerned.
Across the Red Sox, after 1 a.m. this morning in the wake of a 5-4, 12-inning loss to the Angels, Jason Varitek sat at his locker and seemed to imply Beckett's performance - statistically the worst of his postseason career - carried more grit than Beckett let on. Beckett threw a mere five innings (the fewest of his playoff career) and gave up nine hits (the most of his playoff career). Numbers, Varitek said, did define his night.
"I tip my cap to him for even being able to take that ball tonight," Varitek said. "He had to put in a lot of work to allow himself to be ready to pitch tonight. He had to work and take a lot to be able to take the ball."
To what, Varitek was asked, would he attribute Beckett's struggles?
"I can't answer that," he said. "I can say, it meant a lot, just him taking the ball, what he had to go through to be able to make his start tonight, period."
Beckett entered the game with the well-earned reputation of a postseason dream crusher. He had compiled a 1.73 ERA in the playoffs, eighth-best all-time among pitchers with at least 40 postseason innings. He had been a World Series MVP and, last year, the pillar of the Red Sox' postseason.
That Josh Beckett, the Texan who learned to love crisp, fall weather, wasn't present from the very first pitch. Chone Figgins roped a double to right, setting a fitting tone. Beckett steered his way through 13 base runners in his five innings, walking four Angels.
"I thought they really made him work," manager Terry Francona said. "Right from the very first pitch of the game, he was out of the stretch. Again, it's been a couple of weeks. I don't think his command was what it can be, what it will be. But he looked healthy."
Beckett never seemed comfortable, any potential snags with his oblique aside. He had not pitched in 13 days. After Figgins reached, Varitek made numerous visits to the mound to make sure they had their signals straight, and to avert Figgins from stealing them. Beckett eventually loaded the bases and walked Juan Rivera, the Angels' seventh batter, to score the Angels' first run.
"I wasn't trying to test my oblique," Beckett said. "You give up a leadoff double, and you end up having to work pretty hard to keep him from scoring. I was trying to keep them off the board. You ended up trying to be a little more fine, walking a guy in.
"Some of those pitches just missed. A lot of 1-1 counts turned into 2-1 counts."
As many baserunners as he endured, Beckett only surrendered four runs. Beckett often pitched his best with runners on base, and two mistakes, not the onslaught of baserunners, accounted for the Angels' last three runs off the righthander. "Yeah, the hanging curveball to" Mike Napoli, Beckett said. Napoli crushed two homers off Beckett, both over the Green Monster.
"It was a battle," Varitek said. "But he kept us in the game, plain and simple. He had to make some big pitches in that game, and he allowed us to stay in that game."
Beckett made his last stand in the fifth inning. He gave up Napoli's second home run, and Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar both reached base. Figgins came to the plate, already two hits off Beckett to his name. Beckett worked the count and struck out Figgins on a 93-mile-per-hour fastball, his 106th and final pitch of the night.
Beckett insisted the performance, below his standard, was nothing unusual. ("I've had [expletive] games in the playoffs," he said.) His words put the Red Sox at ease that his oblique injury will not persist as a problem. His actions might have made it necessary to wait and see.
Adam Kilgore can be reached at email@example.com