A Nation worries about its ace
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - While New England slept, the Tampa Bays Rays evened the American League Championship Series last night, winning a 5-hour-27-minute marathon, 9-8, on B.J. Upton's sacrifice fly in the 11th at 1:35 this morning.
Watching the Red Sox strand 13 runners and waste four homers, Boston fans were left asking one vital question:
What's up with Josh Beckett? He was Bob Gibson in October 2007. Now he is John Wasdin in October 2008.
Clearly, Beckett is not himself. He was routed for eight runs in 4 1/3 innings last night, easily the worst outing of his illustrious postseason career. Get ready for some serious speculation regarding the rest of this playoff season.
"I'm fine," Beckett said when asked about his condition. "It's frustrating when your team gets eight runs and you can't win the game. That's the frustrating part."
"More than anything, it was mislocation," said Sox pitching coach John Farrell. "I thought his stuff was consistent with what he was throwing the last 6-7-8 weeks of the season."
Beckett strained his right oblique muscle while throwing a bullpen session on the last weekend of the regular season. The Red Sox pushed him back at the start of the Division Series, then injected him with a painkiller and anti-inflammatories before he finally pitched against the Angels in Game 3. The Angels roughed him up for four runs on nine hits and four walks in five innings. It was the worst start of his postseason career . . .
Until last night, when Terry Francona left him on the mound to take the beating of a lifetime on the floor of the Trop Dome.
Beckett gave up nine hits, including three homers, in his short stint against the Rays. It was obvious he had none of his regular weaponry. But the manager kept sending him back to the mound.
"We wanted Beckett to get through that fifth and set up our bullpen, and it didn't work," said Francona.
Beckett's two-game linescore since straining the oblique and getting the injection: 9 1/3 innings, 18 hits, 5 walks, 5 homers, 12 earned runs, 199 pitches. Righthanded hitters have swung and missed only two of his pitches in two abysmal playoff starts. It makes you wonder if we have seen the last of him for 2008. It makes you wonder about those dreams of a third Boston World Series in five seasons. It makes you wonder why the Sox are so stubborn with star players (remember Mike Lowell?) who are not physically able to perform.
This was bloody. Only eight other starting pitchers in postseason history gave up as many as eight runs in 4 1/3 innings or fewer. Back in 1919, Chicago White starter Eddie Cicotte surrendered only seven earned runs in 21 2/3 innings of three World Series starts and he was trying to lose.
Beckett had already given up three homers and five runs when Tito sent him back out for the fifth. The Sox had just taken a 6-5 lead with three solo homers in the top of the inning.
Beckett struck out leadoff man Akinori Iwamura, then walked Upton.
Upton stole second. Then Carlos Peña lined a single to right to score Upton. No Grady, err, no Tito.
When Evan Longoria crushed a double to left to score Peña, Francona finally came out to get his erstwhile ace. The lead was gone and so was Beckett.
"We scored three in the fifth and wanted to give ourselves a realistic chance at having some semblance of order in our bullpen, which we did," said Francona. "He made some mistakes and he paid for them. He tried to throw a fastball into [Cliff] Floyd and he didn't get it in [home run]. Changeup wandered back over the plate to Longoria [home run]. Tried to throw a fastball away to Upton [home run], left it over the middle and paid for all of them."
It's been a strange year for Beckett. He had back trouble in spring training. In August, there was the nerve irritation in his right elbow and tingling in the fingers of his pitching hand. Then came the mysterious oblique strain. Now he's Way Back Beckett.
"When guys get hit around or don't pitch the way they're supposed to, you have a chance to lose the game," said Francona. "All that happened going against us early, we still have a chance to win the game and we couldn't pull it off."
It's only one game. Only one loss in a best-of-seven series. But it left Sox fans with a question about the physical condition of the pitcher who brought the championship to Boston one year ago.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.