At this time of year, when the races are as much against the clock as opponents, this is how quickly fortunes can change: In slightly more than two weeks, the Red Sox have gone from a team in apparent tatters to one with an unmistakable swagger.
And now their ace is coming back.
"I think before we start talking about silver linings, we want to see Josh [Beckett] get through a couple of games and feel good about himself," general manager Theo Epstein said Thursday. "But I'm very optimistic."
The old Red Sox might have been derailed by this, an injury to their ace at a pivotal time. But not these new Sox (post-2003). These Sox turn a potentially devastating setback into a blessing in disguise, offering further proof that the culture around this club has changed forever.
Beckett? On Aug. 17, he allowed eight earned runs in 2 1/3 innings of a calamitous 15-4 loss to the Blue Jays at Fenway Park. While he experienced the now-infamous tingling in the ring and pinkie fingers on his right (throwing) hand, the Sox and their loyal following went almost entirely numb; just like that, an entire season might have gone up in smoke.
Now we have to wonder if the Red Sox might be better off for it.
Since Beckett last walked off the mound, the Sox are 11-4 with a 4.02 ERA, a number that is, in and of itself, deceiving. Take away lopsided losses of 11-0 and 11-6 — one of those games was started by an unraveling Clay Buchholz — and the team ERA is 2.89. The Red Sox have pitched, hit, and played defense, opening a comfortable lead on the Twins for the fourth and final playoff spot in the American League.
Meanwhile, Beckett has had nearly three weeks off to calm his (ulnar) nerve, which could prove invaluable if and when the Red Sox take the field in October.
"Any time a starting pitcher gets a rest," said Epstein, "there's a good chance he comes back feeling fresh and pitching his best baseball of the year."
Wishful thinking, you say? Not really, not based on history. Last year, for instance, an unusually large lead in the AL East afforded the Sox the chance to give Curt Schilling an extended rest, a respite that paid huge dividends in October. Meanwhile, Beckett got considerable rest down the stretch, making his final three starts of the season (and all four in the playoffs) with an extra day off.
Unsurprisingly, Beckett dominated opponents throughout the playoffs, twice outpitching eventual Cy Young Award winner and then-Cleveland ace CC Sabathia. By then, an overworked Sabathia was breathing as heavily as a bloated Buster Douglas after having stacked up innings as if they were buttermilk pancakes.
In recent years, in fact, Red Sox officials effectively have planned to give their starters a midseason break, be it by design or circumstance. Tim Wakefield had a stint on the disabled list. So did Daisuke Matsuzaka. Even Jon Lester got an extended break, granted 12 days of rest (July 8-21) thanks to some strategic planning around the All-Star break.
None of that is a coincidence.
Just as many NFL teams now employ two running backs to account for the wear and tear of the position, the Sox similarly try to lighten the load on their pitchers.
"It's something that's worked well for us," acknowledged Epstein. "Obviously, you never want your pitchers to have problems. I hope we can look back on this [recent episode with Beckett] and say that it was nothing but a scare."
As for what to expect from Beckett on Friday night against the potent Rangers, set your expectations low; the priority is his health. With the Sox now holding a spongy lead in the AL playoff race — regardless of where the club stands relative to the Rays in the division — they have time to rebuild their ace. Epstein said Beckett will be limited to 55-60 pitches, which might translate into nothing more than three or four innings. If that seems unusually low, remember that Beckett threw a mere 55 pitches in his last outing because he didn't survive the third inning.
The last time Beckett threw more than that?
Try Aug. 11, when he threw 104 pitches in a victory over the White Sox.
In the meantime, he hasn't exactly been firing away in the bullpen, either.
Of course, we all know what Beckett means to the Red Sox and their ultimate pursuit: a second straight World Series title and third in five years. Winning without him at his best during the regular season is one thing; winning without him at his best in October is something altogether different. For as much attention paid to Beckett's track record in October (6-2, 1.73 ERA, two world titles in two trips to the postseason), let the record show that September historically has been his best month during the regular season.
His totals: an 18-8 record (his best winning percentage in any month) with a 2.84 ERA (his lowest from April through September).
In the end, thanks to developments from Lester's emergence to Wakefield's consistency to Matsuzaka's resolve and good fortune, the Red Sox have not missed Beckett in April, May, June, July, or August. Now, thanks to the last few weeks, there is the chance they can afford him a stress-free September, too, putting an obvious emphasis on next month and leading to a rather astonishing conclusion.
Incredible as it seems, on Sept. 5, Josh Beckett's season starts now.
This also appears in Friday's Boston Globe.
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