By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 4, 2007
BOSTON, Oct. 3 -- Nobody at Fenway Park needed to rise for the seventh-inning stretch Wednesday night, or raise the volume for the nightly singing of "Sweet Caroline" after the top of the eighth, because everyone was already on their feet, already screaming, as Josh Beckett made his slow, purposeful walk to the Boston Red Sox dugout. And when the bottom halves of those innings ended, suddenly Beckett was sprinting, reaching the mound almost before the third out went up on the scoreboard. When you have mastered your craft the way Beckett had in Game 1 of the American League Division Series, you are loath to leave work and eager to return.
It doesn't feel like October yet in New England, the air a little too warm and heavy, the bare arms and legs of the faithful still a little too tan. But in the Red Sox' 4-0 win over the Los Angeles Angels, Beckett revived memories of Octobers past, when the flamethrower at the center of the diamond -- the young Roger Clemens, the in-his-prime Pedro Martinez, the blood-soaked Curt Schilling -- fired lightning bolts into the chill.
Nearly four years after the game that has defined his career to this point -- the five-hit shutout of the New York Yankees in the clinching game of the 2003 World Series, when he was a 23-year-old Florida Marlins rookie -- Beckett overpowered the Angels and made his Red Sox postseason debut a memorable one. He allowed only four hits in nine dazzling innings, striking out eight, as the Red Sox seized control of the best-of-five series, which continues Friday night.
The opening game between the AL East champs and the AL West champs was to have been a duel between aces and Cy Young Award hopefuls. Angels right-hander John Lackey and Beckett are bound by the fact they each pitched the clinching game of a World Series as youngsters -- Lackey in 2002 as a 24-year-old, Beckett a year later for the Marlins. But only Beckett made good on the promise.
Angels leadoff man Chone Figgins smashed Beckett's sixth pitch of the game off the glove of second baseman Dustin Pedroia and into center field for a single, and for a long while it seemed as if that might be the only thing standing between Beckett and the first postseason no-hitter since Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series.
Beckett retired the side following Figgins's leadoff base hit, and he carried that one-hitter into the seventh -- retiring 19 Angels batters in a row -- until Vladimir Guerrero lined a one-out single to left. He, too, was quickly stranded.
"He threw stuff outside, inside, up, down," said Angels first baseman Casey Kotchman, who went 0 for 3 against Beckett. "He didn't leave anything over the middle of the plate, that's for sure."
Lackey, meantime, labored through several lengthy innings, grimacing at home plate umpire Gary Darling's strike zone and in general appearing utterly miserable. Perhaps he was. The last time Lackey had pitched at Fenway Park, on Aug. 17, he gave up six runs in the first inning, and at one point television cameras appeared to catch him muttering, "[Expletive] this place," as he backed up home plate following another rocket to the outfield.
That loss dropped Lackey's career record to 1-4 with a 7.46 ERA at the "lyric little bandbox" of John Updike's classic ode to Ted Williams, and Lackey will be no more willing to embrace the romance of Fenway following Wednesday night's beating.
"I think they [hammer] a lot of people," Lackey said in response to a question about his problems against the Red Sox, whom he has beaten only once in 12 combined regular season and postseason starts. "That's why we're playing them right now."
On Wednesday night, Lackey's beating included a solo homer by Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis on Lackey's sixth pitch of the game, a two-run homer in the third inning by David Ortiz and a run-scoring single from Mike Lowell two batters later.
Beckett earned the Game 1 start by winning 20 games this season, adding to a growing list of accomplishments. The second overall pick in the draft at age 19, the World Series most valuable player four years later, Beckett is enjoying a new level of stardom this season, because it is happening at Fenway Park, where everything seems to matter a little more.
He had a fastball that reached 96 mph, a mid-80s change-up that fooled Angels batters all night and a tantalizing slow curve that was almost unhittable.
"Even on TV, he looked filthy," said Ortiz, who often watches the game in the clubhouse when the Red Sox are in the field. "I mean, he was right on."
In the fourth inning, Beckett powered through the heart of the Angels' lineup, blowing away Orlando Cabrera on a 95-mph fastball, inducing a weak grounder to shortstop from Guerrero, then fooling Garret Anderson on an 87-mph change-up. Most of the outs were rapid-fire, as the game lasted only 2 hours 27 minutes -- unheard of in a postseason game. At one point, Beckett threw first-pitch strikes to 15 straight Angels batters, many of whom are known to be free-swingers.
"I didn't want to get wrapped up in trying to strike a lot of guys out," Beckett said, "because those are at-bats that will end up [driving up] your pitch count. I just [went] pitch to pitch -- trying to get outs as quickly as possible."
After the seventh-inning stretch, after "Sweet Caroline," after the Red Sox went down in the bottom of the eighth, there was only one question left to be answered -- and it was not whether the Red Sox would hold on.
The question was answered when Beckett sprinted out of the Red Sox dugout for the ninth. This night belonged to him, and now the question is whether the entire postseason will, as well.