Will Beckett Breathe A Cy Of Relief?

To listen to Terry Francona speak optimistically of Josh Beckett's potential Aug. 19, 2006 was to figure the eternally glass-half-full manager had gone beyond blind optimism and lapsed into full-blown denial mode. (FREE PREVIEW OF COMMEMORATIVE CHAMPIONSHIP ISSUE CONTENT!)

"I think in the end, when he puts it together, I think it's going to be real good," Francona said.

At the time, it was going real bad for Beckett and the Sox. He'd just set career highs by allowing nine earned runs and nine walks in a 13-5 loss to the Yankees, who were in the process of a five-game sweep of the Sox that ended the AL East race. His ERA rose to 5.35, fourth-highest in the American League and ahead of only the luminous trio of Rodrigo Lopez, Carlos Silva and Joel Pineiro.

Perhaps it was that beating that convinced Beckett—as headstrong as he is talented—he had to make adjustments in order to survive in the AL. He posted a 2.25 ERA in the six starts following the Yankees disaster and only a poor final inning of his last start lifted his ERA over 5.00.

Beckett, always suspicious of outsiders, hit it off with new pitching coach John Farrell during their introductory meeting in Texas and allowed himself to trust Jason Varitek. And once the season started, Beckett began to trust himself more by reining in his infamous competitive fire and mixing in his off-speed stuff instead of overthrowing his 97 mph fastball all the time.

"It's consistency…the idea of locating and maybe cutting it or sinking it or throwing a change-up at times, throwing his breaking ball for strikes," Terry Francona told reporters before Game Four of the World Series. "He got a lot of wins last year. He had some growing pains in our league, but he was a 26-year-old kid. He turned 27, he works hard, he listens."

Beckett also fine-tuned his workout regimen and eliminated as many distractions as possible by hiring two lifelong friends as his trainer and financial advisor, respectively. He conducted his one-on-one interviews only on the day after a start and even dropped out of the Sox' fantasy football league.

The results were Cy Young-caliber. Despite missing two starts with an "avulsion" on his right middle finger, Beckett went 20-7 with a 3.27 ERA and set career bests in strikeouts (194) and walks (40) in 200 2/3 innings. He was also the winning pitcher in the All-Star Game.

"About three pitches into his first day on field three, we were standing behind the screen and he threw three fastballs that were knee high that looked like they were going to hit the plate," Francona said. "Everybody standing there said ‘Where did that come from?' He has been that pitcher from that moment until today."

He pitched like few others in the postseason. Cy Young voting is done at the end of the regular season, so Beckett is expected to finish behind the Indians' C.C. Sabathia when the balloting is revealed today. Sabathia won 19 games, threw 241 innings and finished with one of the best strikeout-to-walk ratios (209 whiffs, 37 strikeouts for a ratio of 5.35/1) in history.

But while Sabathia flopped in the playoffs—he allowed 15 runs and walked 13 in 15 1/3 innings and was 0-2 with a 10.45 ERA in two starts against the Sox in the ALCS—Beckett left little doubt he was the best pitcher in the league by going 4-0 with a 1.20 ERA in four starts with 35 strikeouts and just two walks in 30 innings. He won the AL Championship Series MVP—his second postseason MVP award—and, at 27, has already cemented a reputation as one of the best playoff pitchers of all-time (he's 6-2 with a 1.73 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 82/14 in 72 2/3 innings dating back to 2003).

"It's going to be real good?" It was a lot better than that for Beckett, who is signed through 2010 and clearly the no. 1 pitcher the Sox have lacked since Pedro Martinez' prime.

The only person seemingly unimpressed by Beckett was, well, Beckett. Never one to play to the crowd, he didn't offer up much self-analysis to the national media that dominated the audience in his pre-start press conferences.

"I hope my teammates are happy," Beckett said after Game One of the World Series. "That's who I'm really here to please. If they're happy, I'm happy."

They are.

"I think he's the best pitcher in the game right now," Curt Schilling said after Game Seven of the ALCS. "And if it's possible, he gets better in October. And that's saying something. He's a special kid with special stuff. And it's just the beginning of a long and storied career."

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

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