Cy Of Relief

BOSTON—Josh Beckett first provided evidence he was headed for a breakout season when he beat his former tormentors, the Yankees, Apr. 21. Nearly four months later, he put an exclamation point on his emergence with a performance that not only confirmed his status as the Red Sox' ace but also as the frontrunner for the AL Cy Young Award.

Beckett allowed a Derek Jeter solo homer and walked two batters in the first before he recovered to throw seven strong innings as the Sox beat the Yankees, 10-1, in front of a sellout crowd of 36,215 at Fenway Park. The win, which occurred less than 24 hours after the Sox' bullpen frittered away a five-run lead in an 8-7 loss, increased the Sox' AL East lead to 5 ½ games and reduced their magic number for clinching the division to nine.

Beckett allowed the one run on three hits and two walks while striking out seven on his way to becoming the first pitcher in the majors with 19 wins. "I thought Beckett did exactly what we kind of have come to expect and also needed," Terry Francona said. "He pitched like an ace of a staff today. Against the best lineup in baseball, he went out there and did exactly what we needed."

In more ways than one. Beckett no doubt earned some additional cache with his teammates in the seventh, when he ended a streak of 12 straight outs by hitting Jason Giambi with a pitch with two outs. Favorite Yankees target Kevin Youkilis was hit by a pitch from Chien-Ming Wang in the fifth—the sixth time he's been plunked by the Yankees since the start of last year—and was forced to leave with a right wrist contusion.

Robinson Cano followed the Giambi plunking with a single to provide the Yankees with their first threat since the first, but Beckett whiffed Melky Cabrera to cap an impressive performance that served as further proof of his maturation.

Beckett threw 30 pitches in the first but just 78 the rest of the way. He was as dominant as he was economical over the final six innings: He struck out six in an eight-batter span between the second and fourth, including the side in the fourth, and allowed only one baserunner (a walk to Bobby Abreu in the third) over a 19-batter span between the first and seventh.

"We all recognize what pitch limits are for a given guy, and for him to go out and be that much more efficient the following six innings and [to] get seven full innings with 108 pitches says a lot about him," Sox pitching coach John Farrell said. "[He wasn't] changing his approach completely, yet [he was] still maintaining his focus and concentration."

Francona and Jason Varitek thought the laborious first was a matter of the Yankees' ever-patient ways and not poor location by Beckett. "He was close, [he] wasn't misfiring all over the place," Varitek said. "He was just settling into his delivery."

Still, the Beckett of a year ago—indeed, even the Beckett of less than three weeks ago—may have allowed the Yankees' methodical ways to alter his approach. Beckett allowed 22 runs and issued 16 walks in four starts (20 innings) against the Yankees last year. He pitched into the seventh in each of his first three starts against the Yankees this year, including Apr. 21, when he allowed four runs in the first two innings but later retired 17 of 19 batters and earned the win in a 7-5 victory. But he also allowed four earned runs each time out and gave up a career-high 13 hits in the Bronx Aug. 29.

"He walked two guys and gave up a solo home run—it would be easy to say that, wow, this is going to be the game that he pitched in New York," Farrell said. "Yet he didn't let things unravel and he very much remained pitch-to-pitch. Which is a bland statement, but it's clearly what he did today."

Speaking of bland statements, that's about all Beckett and the Sox issue when it comes to discussing his Cy Young candidacy. "Right now, hopefully, our focus isn't on the Cy Young," Varitek said. "Being his teammate, what he's done for us, [he's] a huge candidate."

Beckett has said for weeks he's not thinking about the Cy Young or a 20-win season, only his next start, and he shrugged off talk Saturday that he approaches a so-called "statement" game differently than any other start. "I don't know that I relish [pitching against the Yankees]," Beckett said. "Just do what I always do. Just go out and try to execute pitches."

He's done that well enough to put together the type of season that's been expected out of him since the Marlins selected him with the second pick of the 1999 draft. He ranks among the AL's top five in wins ERA (fifth at 3.20), WHIP (fourth at 1.13) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (third at 4.74). Only one other pitcher, the Indians' C.C. Sabathia, ranks in the top five in all four categories.

All this a mere year after Beckett posted the highest ERA (5.01), highest WHIP (1.30) and lowest strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.14) of his career.

"I think we've seen a guy really take a step further," Farrell said. "He's a wildly successful young guy as a major league pitcher, but to see him refine that—to basically cut his walks in half from a year ago [Beckett walked 74 last year and has issued 37 walks this year], I think that speaks volumes. That's a tangible number that speaks to his approach to pitching. It's not just relying on velocity or trying to throw the ball by people. It's pitching."

In the end, it was Varitek who unwittingly described the season-long evolution of Beckett while attempting to explain his success Saturday. "It's execution—execution of all your pitches," Varitek said. "He's a big strong kid."

Varitek paused. "Young man."

He paused again. "Man."


Diehard managing editor Jerry Beach can be reached at diehardmag@yahoo.com. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-501-5752. To subscribe to Diehard or diehardmagazine.com, please CLICK HERE.

Diehard Magazine Top Stories