Remember when Josh Beckett was 2-2 with a 7.22 ERA? That’s OK -- no one else does, either.
Facing the Atlanta Braves for his second straight start (the previous one being a complete-game shutout last Saturday), Beckett again blasted zeros across the scoreboard. The Red Sox starter logged seven shutout innings in his team’s 4-1 victory (recap), permitting just six hits while walking none and punching out six.
Beckett (9-3, 3.48) became the first Sox starter to make consecutive starts of at least seven innings without allowing a run since Tim Wakefield in August 2007. He is the first Boston pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 2000 with five starts before the end of June in which he allowed no earned runs while pitching at least six innings.
Since May 5, Beckett is 7-1 with a 1.94 ERA. Of late, he’s been even more dominant, going 5-1 with a 1.24 ERA in his last seven outings. He’s been ridiculously good on a routine basis.
“He's been great,” second baseman Dustin Pedroia told mlb.com. “You can just tell his confidence out there when he gets the ball. He's been giving us six, seven innings of quality every time out.”
Beckett now ranks among American League leaders in wins (9, T-3rd) and strikeouts (94, 5th). Of almost equal importance for the Sox, however, are the categories in which Beckett is no longer topping the league. He ranks 11th in the A.L. with 98.1 innings and, after spending most of the year in the top two or three in his league in pitches thrown, has dropped to sixth, with 1,613 pitches on the year.
After averaging 106 pitches per start in April and a startling 115 in May, Beckett has needed just 102 pitches per outing this month. On Friday, thanks in part to what the pitcher described to reporters as “stomach cramps” late in the game, he concluded his outing after seven innings and a modest 98 pitches.
In sickness and health, Beckett has been ruthlessly efficient in overpowering his opponents. That approach has positioned him not only to enjoy the best run of his career over the past five weeks, but also to sustain it.
Here are four other educational items from Friday’s game:
EVIDENCE OF DAVID THE DESTROYER HAS BECOME COMMONPLACE
A few weeks ago, the comparisons that David Ortiz endured were singularly unflattering. When he went through the first month of the season with just one homer, and then ended May with just two longballs, the list of players ahead of him on the home run chart was long.
That being the case, it is only fair that Ortiz’ standing in the game this month -- when he has once again started blasting homers with abandon -- receive its due. Ortiz broke up a scoreless tie in the top of the fifth, jumping on a 90 mph fastball up and in from Braves starter Jair Jurrgens and depositing it a handful of rows deep into the right-field seats.
Since June 1, the slugger (a term that once again seems to fit) is now hitting .311 with a .386 OBP and a whopping .705 slugging mark. He has seven round-trippers this month, tying him for the sixth most in the game in June, despite the fact that his playing time has been somewhat limited by the interleague schedule.
More impressively, Ortiz has gotten his seven homers in just 61 at-bats this month. His rate of one homer for every 8.7 at-bats this month is second in the game to only Cardinals masher Albert Pujols (homer per 8.6 at-bats). He has hit three homers in his last four games.
“He weathered (the struggle) and now he can help us,” Sox manager Terry Francona told reporters. “He was kind of lost for a while, and thankfully, now he’s kind of found himself. It’s good for us. We need his bat.”
That notion is especially true at the moment, given that…
MIKE LOWELL’S AVAILABILITY AND PRODUCTION ARE BOTH DIMINISHING
To this point in the season, the Sox could ask for little more than what they’ve gotten from Mike Lowell. The third baseman played in 65 of his team’s first 67 games, and his .283 average, .472 slugging mark and .792 OPS represent solid marks (though his .320 OBP is less impressive).
Yet his production has fallen in each month of the season, as his batting average (.310 in April, .307 in May, .209 in June), OBP (.341, .325, .289) and slugging (.571, .491, .313) have all been on a downward trajectory.
Of course, Lowell is returning from offseason surgery to repair a torn hip labrum. Though the procedure has been performed on several players since Lowell -- Chase Utley, Alex Rodriguez and Alex Gordon have all been through similar surgeries in recent months -- it had no real baseball precedent before Lowell. As such, it seemed fair to wonder whether the physical grind of the season would impact him.
It is unclear whether Lowell’s hip is responsible for his declining production at the plate. The player -- who said that he is not affected when he swings, that the current discomfort does not compare to what he experienced prior to the surgery last year and that the doctor who performed the surgery said that the discomfort is perfectly normal -- did not think that his performance was a reflection of the injury.
"I wish I could blame every time I make an out on something," Lowell told reporters. "But I don't really think I can."
Nonetheless, Lowell has acknowledged that the right hip continues to bother him, and does not appear to be getting better with rest. He has now sat out of five of his team’s last seven games. On Friday, he acknowledged that there is a decent likelihood that he will miss the entirety of the three-game series against the Braves.
Lowell was scheduled to be examined by Red Sox medical director Dr. Thomas Gill prior to the game against the Braves. One topic of discussion was the possibility of administering a Synvisc injection in the hip. The lubricating shot has been used to alleviate knee pain, often in the knee, for several players.
If Lowell receives such a shot, it would most likely be on Monday. Recovery from the shot can take as little as 24 hours, in which case the third baseman could return to the lineup as early as Tuesday.
Yet the question will not merely be when Lowell might return, but how he might perform once he does.
DUSTIN PEDROIA IS IMPACTING THE GAME ON THE BASES
Off the bat, it was unclear whether the chopper would result in an out or an infield single. Chipper Jones came in on the high bounder, but could not convert the do-or-die play. The ball skidded under his glove and trickled into left.
Dustin Pedroia had a hit, but was not content. He read the pace of the ball and the positioning of the fielders perfectly, and so sprinted easily into second base with a double.
But his impact on the bases did not stop there. Pedroia danced back and forth at second until he sufficiently distracted Braves starter Jurrjens to the point of committing a balk. The play proved significant, since Pedroia then scurried home on an infield grounder.
Later, in the eighth, Pedroia again reached second, and again he prompted a Jurrjens balk. Jurrjens became the first pitcher to balk at least twice in a game against the Sox since Jack Morris did so on April 19, 1988.
More significantly, however, the pair of balks (as well as Pedroia’s intelligent baserunning) offer a reminder that he has made himself into an impact player on the bases. For obvious reasons, a pitcher will not balk twice with David Ortiz on the bases. For obvious reasons, a pitcher might balk when Jacoby Ellsbury is on.
It would appear that Pedroia -- despite the obvious and well-documented absence of blazing speed -- shares more in common with Ellsbury than Ortiz on the bases. A year after the 2008 A.L. MVP stole 20 bags, he has already swiped 12 this year, and is on pace for 26 steals on the season. He is tied for 15th in the A.L. in steals, and is just one steal behind noted burners such as Ichiro Suzuki, Curtis Granderson and Coco Crisp.
And so, while it might come as somewhat surprising to see Pedroia get balked to third on a pair of occasions, it is by no means without justification.
A LOT ABOUT JONATHAN PAPELBON’S SEASON DEFIES EXPLANATION
Baseball is, of course, a results-oriented game, and so it seems silly to find fault in Jonathan Papelbon’s season. The Sox closer says that he measures his effectiveness based on how often he successfully converts his save opportunities, and by that standard, he has been completely effective this year.
He has converted 17 of his 18 save opportunities, the fourth best rate (min. 10 saves) of any closer in baseball. Despite that fulfillment of his job requirements -- and a skinny 1.97 ERA -- Papelbon is still enduring more lackluster outings this year than he has in any other.
Friday continued the puzzle. Papelbon entered the ninth in a non-save situation, with the Sox possessing a 4-0 advantage. The Braves promptly wiped out the shutout against the pitcher, as David Ross (a member of the Sox last September) swatted a homer against the Sox closer, and pinch-hitter Brian McCann crushed a 94 mph fastball off the base of the fence in left-center.
(McCann’s near-miss kept intact Papelbon’s track record of never having given up two homers in a relief outing. He has now pitched 230 times in relief. Papelbon still has some work to do to catch Jesse Orosco, who never allowed multiple homers in his 1,248 relief appearances.)
Papelbon recovered to retire the Braves, but was less than overpowering in doing so. It would be easy to suggest that the absence of a save situation was to blame for his struggles.
But the closer actually had a 0.00 ERA this year in his prior 12 appearances in non-save situations, compared to a 2.84 mark in save situations. In his career prior to yesterday, he had a 1.67 ERA in non-save situations, compared to a 1.87 mark while trying to close out a narrow lead.