Ace of clubs
Beckett displays All-Star form by shutting down A’s
Josh Beckett took the ball on Opening Day for the first time in a Red Sox uniform this spring, and that meant something to him. Beckett was 25 when he pitched his first game with the Red Sox. He is 29 now, a leader whom the other pitchers in the rotation watch and follow. “He enjoys that responsibility,’’ Sox manager Terry Francona said.
Part of that responsibility includes halting losing streaks before they begin, and that Beckett has mastered. Beckett has started nine times following a Red Sox loss. The Sox have won eight of them, the latest a 5-2 victory over the Oakland A’s last night before 37,676 at Fenway Park. Beckett oppressed the A’s for 6 2/3 innings, allowing six hits and a walk and striking out four on his way to his 10th victory, tied for tops in the American League.
“He’s been our bulldog,’’ catcher Jason Varitek said. “When he’s healthy, he can really do harm with a baseball.’’
The Sox entered with a slogging offense, one that produced two hits and no runs Monday night. Jason Bay ended his and his team’s stagnation by going 2 for 3 with his first home run in 48 at-bats, his longest drought of the year. The Sox pounded nine hits, not an explosion, but a start for a team that had 15 hits total in its last three games.
It felt like an abundance with Beckett on the mound. The Sox have not endured a losing streak of longer than three all season, because their two All-Star starters will not allow it. Beckett and Tim Wakefield are the only teammates in baseball with 10 wins apiece.
Wakefield has been his usual reliable self. Beckett has been a revelation. Since May began, he is 8-1 with a 2.38 ERA. He has pitched at least six innings in all 12 of his starts during that span, ever cognizant of the bullpen.
“He’s been that ace-type, shutdown guy,’’ Bay said. “There aren’t too many in the league. And he’s one of them.’’
“He’s one of the best,’’ Francona said. “He’s fearless. Our guys look up to him. He’s really grown into it.’’
His opponents know that, which is why they voted Beckett to his second All-Star Game. Beckett had 7.22 ERA at the end of April. He struggled with fastball command, the lynchpin of his game. Since then, he’s been able to cut and sink his fastball, which makes any pitch he throws devastating. And he was recognized for it with the All-Star nod.
“It’s great,’’ Beckett said. “We strive for that in the first part of the year. It’s nice to be voted in by peers. Obviously, there’s only a couple ways a pitcher can make it, and that’s one of them. I really take pride in that.’’
The Sox, impotent against starting pitchers lately, knocked out A’s lefthander Dana Eveland before the end of the third inning, the damage started by Bay. Eveland had plowed through the first third of the Red Sox lineup in order, an ominous start after Brett Anderson two-hit the Sox in a complete-game shutout Monday night.
Bay led off the second, and he fell behind, 1-2. Eveland tried a 91-mile-per-hour fastball. Bay swatted the ball high into the night, toward the light tower in center. Bay thought he had just missed the pitch. In the dugout, Francona thought, “Hit the wall.’’
But the ball landed just to the left of the tower, in the first row of seats on top of the Green Monster. Bay had hit his 20th home run and it sparked a welcome offensive burst.
After the Sox tacked on another run in the sixth with Dustin Pedroia’s RBI single, the A’s mounted a final assault on Beckett in the seventh while using little firepower. Kurt Suzuki reached to lead off the inning when Kevin Youkilis booted a grounder. With two outs, Mark Ellis chopped a ball that traveled about 35 feet. Beckett fielded it like a pop up and rifled a throw to first, but not in time to nab Ellis.
Beckett wanted to continue, but three factors worked against him: He had thrown 107 pitches, lefthander Adam Kennedy stood in the on-deck circle, and Hideki Okajima was warming in the bullpen. Francona hopped up the dugout steps and asked for the ball.
While Okajima sprinted in from right, Beckett walked off the mound muttering words a newspaper can’t print, Francona following behind, but not too close.
“It’s frustrating when you give up two hits like that,’’ Beckett said. “You can’t go back to the drawing board. You feel like you executed a good pitch.’’
Kennedy tested Okajima, working a full count and fouling off a couple balls. On the eighth pitch he saw, Kennedy skipped a one-hopper at Pedroia, ending the threat and preserving a three-run Sox lead.
By the time Jonathan Papelbon completed his 21st save in a driving rain storm, the Yankees were beating up on the Twins. But the Sox knew they’d remain in first place alone because they had scored enough runs, and they had Beckett on their side.
Beckett said he is not aware of what happened the game before on days he follows a loss. “I go into each game,’’ Beckett said, “with the idea of winning each game.’’
Adam Kilgore can be reached at email@example.com.