Since the beginning of May, Josh Beckett had been delivering the types of performances that could only be examined through the perspective of history. On Sunday, that remained the case, but for entirely different reasons.
The Red Sox ace, who enjoyed a period of unrelenting dominance from early May through the middle of August, turned in an outing unlike any other in his career, and indeed, in the last half century.
The Yankees went deep five times off of Beckett, leading New York to an 8-4 triumph in the rubber match of a three-game set against the Red Sox. (Recap.)
It was the most homers that Beckett had ever allowed in his career, and marked just the second time since 1954 that a Sox pitcher had yielded five round-trippers in a game. (The previous one came when Dennis Eckersley endured the beating on July 1, 1979.)
“It was a pretty good ass-whupping, to sum it up,” Beckett said. “You can’t give up seven and eight runs every damn time you go out there. You’re not going to be here very long if you do that.
“Obviously, you tend to remember these. These are humbling deals.”
The odd thing was that no single pitch was responsible for Beckett’s woes. Both Derek Jeter and Hideki Matsui blasted solo homers on mid-90s fastballs on the first pitches of the first and second innings.
Beckett left both pitches up in the zone, and the Yankees assaulted the offerings.
“He’s been struggling to get that good two-seam movement. This team doesn’t need help elevating the ball,” explained Sox manager Terry Francona. “(Beckett’s) fastball, especially early, was a little bit flat. Early, they were hunting first pitch fastball. They got a couple of them.”
Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez added to the slugfest with homers on curveballs. Matsui finished the damage on another type of fastball – either a two-seamer or cutter – that drifted over the plate.
In short, the Yankees did damage against just about everything in Beckett’s arsenal. Even so, New York – now enjoying a comfortable 7.5 game lead in the division – were hardly reveling in their performance.
“When we got pitches to hit, we hit them. It’s really not more complicated than that,” said Jeter. “He’s always tough to face. Even though we got some hits today off him, it’s not like guys are running up there to hit off of him. He’s tough. Today, we just got some pitches to hit and we hit them hard. I’m pretty sure he’ll be fine.”
The pitcher said twice that he does not have any physical problems. But in some ways, his clean bill of healthy makes his recent struggles all the more puzzling.
In his first 22 starts this year, spanning 150 innings, Beckett allowed 10 homers. In his last three starts, covering 20.1 innings, he has allowed 10 longballs.
He gave up a pair of solo shots against the Tigers on Aug. 12, was taken deep three times by the Jays on Aug. 18, and then endured his five-blast beating on Sunday. The 10 homers over a three-outing span shattered the pitcher’s previous career-high mark of eight, set in 2006.
If there is a silver lining for Beckett, it is that just two of those longballs came with a runner on base. Even so, given that pitching coach John Farrell has said repeatedly that Beckett’s success has been premised upon his command down in the strike zone, it would appear that he has been struggling of late to employ that effective formula.
Beckett’s vulnerability was of a peculiar sort. He was charged with all eight runs, but because the Yankees took an aggressive approach against him, he had an opportunity to pitch deep into the game. Beckett delivered eight innings, thus turning in just the fourth outing since 1954 in which a pitcher stayed in the game for at least eight innings while giving up five homers.
The others to do so were Hall of Famer Jim Palmer (who was taken deep five times by the Red Sox on June 22, 1977) and former Cy Young winner Pat Hentgen, who endured two such outings (one against the Sox on June 25, 1997, the other against the Indians on May 26, 1995).
That Beckett delivered such a clunker – one start after he got blasted for seven runs in 5.1 innings in Toronto – seemed stunning. Prior to the start against the Jays, after all, Beckett had a 12-2 record and 2.17 ERA over his previous 18 outings. Now, he has allowed 15 runs in his last 13.1 innings spanning two starts.
Even so, the Sox were not ready to sound any alarms – yet.
“The guy is human. No question. He had just been on a run for so long that everyone just expected Josh to go out there and give up a run or two, three tops,” said outfielder Jason Bay. “It’s just a reminder that it’s not that easy and there are bumps in the road. But I don’t think there’s one guy in here who wouldn’t take him again tomorrow. He’s one of the best pitchers in the league, and everyone goes through a little stretch.”
So long as it is indeed “a little stretch,” such as the one that Beckett endured en route to a 2-2 record and 7.22 ERA in April, the team will be able to resume life with the confidence of having a pair of pitchers (in Beckett and Jon Lester) with ace-caliber stuff. But if Beckett’s struggles continue, then one of the team’s foremost strengths will suddenly turn into cause for alarm.
Here are four other lessons from a series finale that left the possibility of an American League East title as little more than a speck on the horizon for the Sox:
THE OUTCOME ASIDE, IT WAS A GOOD SERIES FOR THE RED SOX
Just two weeks earlier, the walls seemed to be crumbling on the Red Sox. The team scurried out of Yankee Stadium having been smoked in four straight games in New York, following another pair of defeats in Tampa Bay. It was the unquestionable low point of the season.
Most pointedly, the Sox had endured a stretch of 31 straight innings without scoring a run in New York. Even with some excellent pitching performances, the Sox rarely felt like they were able to compete with the Yankees.
This series was different. The Sox posted 17 earned runs against Yankees starters Andy Pettitte (5 IP, 5 ER), A.J. Burnett (5 IP, 9 ER) and CC Sabathia (6.2 IP, 3 ER) in 16.2 innings. That same group had logged 22.1 shutout frames against the Sox during the prior series.
“Offensively, we swung the bat all three days really well, all things considering, especially given who they were throwing out there,” said Bay.
“We were in a very tough stretch. We threw the ball extremely well. We just couldn’t score a run. Now, things are starting to settle offensively,” said Sox catcher Jason Varitek. “I like, for the most part, all in all how we’re playing. We’ve started to play much better over the last week, 10 days. We even played well today. We made CC work. That was good.”
In New York, the Sox were scrambling to find bodies so that they could field a major-league lineup, resulting in oddities such as Kevin Youkilis playing left field and left-handed hitter Casey Kotchman being in the lineup against a nasty southpaw like Sabathia.
In this series, the Sox had an entirely different sort of lineup challenge, as they had what seemed like too many options for a nine-man lineup. Both David Ortiz and J.D. Drew, after all, sat for the series finale.
The positive developments did not necessarily stop there. Presuming that Beckett’s start on Sunday was an anomaly, the team had reason to feel better about its rotation. While Brad Penny flopped, Junichi Tazawa demonstrated that he has the potential to serve as a viable option against potent lineups.
Moreover, Tim Wakefield is set to return on Wednesday while Daisuke Matsuzaka, who is scheduled to pitch roughly three innings for his first rehab outing in the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League on Monday, has given the Sox at least some cause to believe he might help down the stretch.
“He is significantly stronger in the shoulder, he is significantly leaner in his body, and he is also significantly stronger in his body,” said Francona. “There’s a lot of reasons to be excited.”
That said, the Sox have little reason to think that they can erase their 7.5 game deficit in the American League East. Still, the team believes that if it sustains its level of play from this series going forward, then – armed with a one-game lead in the wild card – they can feel good about their chances of playing into October.
“Obviously, (the division) is getting a little further away and we’re running out of time – no question – so you’ve got to be realistic. But at the same time, your goal is to get into the playoffs. Whatever way you can do that, at least you’re in,” said Bay. “I think what goes unnoticed around here is that we are in first place for the other remaining playoff spot.
“We’re not really chasing anyone else in the other race. In some regards, we call our own destiny,” Bay continued. “That sometimes goes unnoticed when you’re playing New York and people want to make a huge deal out of it. But we won the Wild Card last year and made it to Game 7 of the ALCS.”
BRAD PENNY ENTERS UNKNOWN TERRITORY
To no one’s surprise, after Brad Penny got shelled on Friday and Junichi Tazawa delivered six scoreless innings against the Yankees on Saturday, the Sox committed to keeping Tazawa in the rotation. The Japanese rookie will pitch on Thursday, while Penny will be relegated to an insurance option.
Penny will be available in the bullpen as a long reliever when Wakefield makes his return on Wednesday and, presuming that he is not used that night, again on Thursday when Tazawa takes the mound. If he does not pitch on either of those days, Penny will throw a simulated game on Friday to remain stretched out.
“We don't just want to turn him into a reliever," Francona said of Penny. "That's not in anybody's best interest. But we want to protect the club, we want to help him. That's about as far as we can go. And we communicated that to him today."
Penny has made just four career appearances as a reliever – two that came on the final day before All-Star breaks (in 2000 and 2006), the other two coming last September when he was trying to see if he was healthy enough to contribute to the Dodgers (he wasn’t).
His current outlook is unclear, as the right-hander suggested that he does "not really" have a sense of how he fits into the team's plans going forward this year.
"Whatever I have to do to pitch, I’ll do," said Penny. "That’s all I can tell you right now."
Penny (7-8, 5.61) is 1-5 with a 7.82 ERA in his last seven starts.
THE INTRIGUE SURROUNDING BILLY WAGNER TOOK SEVERAL BIZARRE TURNS
It started on Saturday. Relievers Jonathan Papelbon and Manny Delcarmen, upon learning that the Sox were trying to acquire Mets reliever Billy Wagner after having claimed him on waivers from the Mets, expressed some hesitancy about the merits of such a deal.
The two Sox hurlers cited uncertainty about the pitcher’s health and the potentially unsettling nature of role changes that would occur if Wagner was brought to Boston. The two pitchers cited the Eric Gagne deal in 2007 to suggest that trades intended to improve a club sometimes have disappointing outcomes.
On Sunday, a pack of reporters sought clarification from Papelbon. The Sox closer suggested that a reliever of Wagner’s caliber would certainly be a boon to a bullpen. Even so, he again cited the Gagne precedent, and expressed concerns that the addition of another reliever could threaten “the dynamic” of the Sox bullpen. He suggested that a decision about whether to deal for Wagner was not “cut and dried.”
In New York, Wagner gushed about his general enthusiasm for pitching in Boston, but expressed annoyance to reporters about Papelbon’s comments.
“When he walks in my shoes, then I’ll say something,” Wagner told reporters. “Let him be 38 and have Tommy John and come back.”
Yet that back and forth probably was less central to the issue of a potential move by the Sox to acquire Papelbon than Wagner’s no-trade clause.
According to Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, the Red Sox' efforts to acquire reliever Billy Wagner from the Mets were in "serious jeopardy" due to Boston's unwillingness to grant two conditions that Wagner and his agent, Bean Stringfellow, established for the pitcher to waive his no-trade clause.
Wagner and Stringfellow, according to the report, asked the Sox to guarantee that they will not pick up his $8 million option for 2010, and also wanted the Sox to commit to not offering the pitcher salary arbitration.
Such conditions would be designed to make the pitcher as attractive as possible as he seeks a job as a closer for the 2010 season. The Sox, on the other hand, would likely want to have either the chance to control Wagner's 2010 rights on what could be a relatively affordable $8 million option (a reasonable salary, should he continue to demonstrate that he is healthy over the rest of this year) or the chance to offer the pitcher salary arbitration so that they could receive two draft picks if he left as a free agent.
Rosenthal said that the Sox might still be interested in trading for Wagner as a rental, but that they would not offer the same prospect value to the Mets under such a scenario.
The Sox claimed Wagner on waivers on Friday. The Mets have until Tuesday at 1 p.m. to grant the claim outright, to work out a trade for Wagner, or to pull the pitcher back off of waivers and keep him for the rest of the year.
It would appear that the hours leading up to the Tuesday deadline have the potential for intense drama.
CATCH AS CATCH CAN
With Wakefield returning, Victor Martinez will get the honors on Wednesday as the catcher entrusted with the responsibility of trying to corral knuckleballs. Martinez has caught one of Wakefield’s side sessions, and he has also been practicing with the knuckleball machine that bullpen coach and catching instructor Gary Tuck has rigged.
Indeed, the Sox toted the piece of equipment with them on their last roadtrip, “which I’m sure the airline appreciated,” chuckled Francona.
The Sox would like to see if Martinez can handle the knuckler. If so, then Martinez will likely get more work with Wakefield down the stretch. If not, then the team will likely return to the pairing of Wakefield and catcher George Kottaras (currently eligible to come off the D.L., Kottaras will almost surely be activated on Sept. 1) for the final month of the season.
Francona said that he would like to have Varitek work with Beckett and Lester going forward, given the familiarity and track record of success for those partnerships.