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Beckett now a question more than an answer

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  October 11, 2008 11:32 AM

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- And so now, after so much consternation, the Red Sox have their pitching lined up just the way everyone imagined it. Beginning today, Josh Beckett is first. Jon Lester is second. And the Sox already have one game tucked in their pockets.

At this point, there really is just one question:

Which Josh Beckett are the Sox going to get?

Winners of Game 1 of the American League Championship Series by a 2-0 score last night, the Red Sox tonight will send Beckett to the mound for a Game 2 that clearly meansa lot to the opposition. The Tampa Bay Rays' miraculous 2008 season might be on the line. The Rays need this game more than the Red Sox do or they will enter Game 3, on the road, against a man (Lester) who thus far has been the very best pitcher in baseball this entire postseason.

All of this brings us back to Beckett, whom Red Sox officials still regard as their ace. The problem is that Beckett didn't look like much of one during a Game 3 loss to the Los Angeles Angels during the American League Division Series, starting the only game this postseason that has not ended in a Red Sox victory.

"Before Beckett's last start, he was the best post-season pitcher maybe in the history of the game," Francona said upon announcing his series rotation on Wednesday at Fenway Park. "He had the audacity to be a little rusty after two weeks. We don't need to run away from Beckett, we need to get him on a run."

But really, was it merely rust? Is Beckett still ailing? Is there something more going on here than meets the eye? Team sources have confirmed that the Red Sox pitcher required an injection consisting of a pain-killer and anti-inflammatory medication after injuring his right oblique during a bullpen session on the final weekend of the regular season, suggesting that the ailment was more severe than originally anticipated.

Tonight, the Red Sox should get some answers. And we should all learn whether Beckett is back to being Beckett, the best postseason pitcher maybe in the history of the game, or whether is now wounded and, thus, limited for the balance of this postseason.

Admittedly, this has been a trying year for the incumbent ace of the Boston pitching staff. Beckett had a back problem in spring training, nerve irritation in his elbow in August, a strained oblique in September. Recently, there was some indication that Beckett needed an injection of cortisone (or something of the like) in order to take the mound for Game 3 of the ALDS. Beckett then went out and looked like he was playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, showing little ability to command or control his pitches in a 106-pitch, five-inning outing that was nothing short of laborious.

Suddenly, it is as if Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka have swapped bodies.

None of this is meant to question Beckett's ability or his toughness; rather, it is a question of his health. As much as Beckett is a pitcher, he has not thrown with the same conviction since returning from a prolonged absence in August during which he suffered from irritation of the ulnar nerve in his right elbow. Beckett's fastball has since hovered near 93 mph instead of the usual 95-96, and that slight dip suggests that Beckett is either unable or unwilling to grip it and whip it.

Let's be honest: Against the Angels, Beckett frequently looked unsure of himself. The Beckett of 2007 was so confident that he dared hitters to handle his fastball because he knew they could not. Now Beckett seems to be pitching more and throwing less, and that is a difficult transition for most pitchers to make during a career, let alone October.

On Monday, after Lester blanked the Angels for seven innings in Game 4 of the ALDS, Beckett was at his locker when he was asked about Lester's brilliance in the series. The Sox ace heaped praise upon his teammate, the issued a reminder that the first rule of pitching big games is simplify things and trust your God-given ability.

"This is to take nothing away from him because I thought this last year: It's easy when you throw 95-97 [mph] with sink and movement," Beckett said, referring to his own October performance. "Really, all he's trying to do is what he did all year. I said that about myself last year. Everybody was making a big deal about it, but the simpler you make it, the better off you are going to be.

"[Shoot], he's a man," Beckett said of Lester. "There ain't nobody that wants to face him right now."

As for Beckett, we wonder: Is the game simpler for him now, or more complex? Does he believe he can get his fastball by hitters in the most critical situations, as he did last October, or is he unsure? Is he healthy or is he hurt? Was he rusty against the Angels, or limited?

Asked about his health following Game 4 against the Angels, Beckett gave a simple and predictable answer: "Fine." The response was entirely consistent with his character. Beckett is the oldest of old school players, a man who lambastes himself when he loses and dismisses himself when he wins. He expects himself to be great. Anyone who knows anything about Beckett would never question his heart, toughness, ability or know-how, and yet Beckett enters Game 2 of this American League Championship Series as something of a mystery.

Tonight, as in Game 3 of the ALDS, there really is no pressure on the Red Sox to win. At a time of year when individual accomplishments typically are secondary at best, the real issue for the Red Sox concerns what they can expect from their ace as the delve deeper into the heart of October.

Is Beckett hurt or isn't he?

And can they truly count on him or not?

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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