KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Josh Beckett arrived in Boston, the questions were not about his talent. Instead, the enormous issue that loomed over the pitcher was whether he could stay healthy enough to justify the steep prospect price paid by the Red Sox to acquire him.
In his four full seasons with the Marlins, Beckett never pitched as many as 180 innings. At times, it seemed he spent as much time on the disabled list as the active roster thanks to a succession of blisters and shoulder woes.
Now, that time seems like a distant memory. Prior to Wednesday’s game, a 9-2 triumph over the Royals, Beckett had already eclipsed the 200-inning mark for the third time in four years. On Wednesday, he set a new standard for innings in a season, logging six frames to push his 2009 total to 207-1/3, surpassing his career-best total of 204-2/3 (set in 2006, in his first year with the Sox).
Beckett has given every indication that durability is his new norm, and that the goal of 200 innings — a total that Beckett suggests “seems more like a full season” — is a rational expectation. Even so, he insists that the 200-inning threshold is not one he takes for granted, or for which he should be penciled in at the start of the year.
“I think that 200 mark is kind of where you’re trying to get each year. That seems more like a full season,” Beckett said. “You have to have a full season. You can’t have a season where you’re averaging five innings [per start] unless you end up with eight more starts than everyone else.
“I don’t think you establish that. It’s not an easy thing to do in either league. I do think it’s a little easier to do in the American League, because you’re not getting pulled with a pinch-hitter with guys on second and third with two outs in the seventh inning. In the National League that happens quite a bit. It’s not an easy thing, going after 200 innings.
“There’s a few guys, I’d say most staffs have maybe one guy who throws 200 innings. There’s not a whole lot of staffs that end up with two or three guys that do that.”
Pitching coach John Farrell has long been of a different mind. As Cleveland’s director of player development, he found that there was a survival effect, in which a pitcher who sustains a 200-inning workload for three years typically maintains that level.
Beckett seemingly has now demonstrated his ability to handle such a workload on an annual basis. This year, he has proven that 2008 — when he logged 174-1/3 innings while facing a succession of woes, including a spring training back injury, the flu, tingling in his elbow and forearm and, finally, an oblique injury — may have been an aberration.
Whereas the end of his 2008 season was characterized by physical uncertainty, Beckett now pronounces himself strong for the final weeks of the regular season and the postseason. The pitcher acknowledges that his vantage point at this stage of the 2009 season is vastly different from the one he experienced a year ago.
“No glitches — it’s nice,” Beckett said. “You’re not out there wondering, ‘Oh, is this going to come back or is this going to happen?’ You’re just going out there to execute pitches.”
That is precisely what Beckett is seemingly able to do at this time. Though his start on Wednesday was anything but perfect — the pitcher allowed 12 hits, the second-highest yield of his career — he nonetheless limited the Royals to just two runs in his six innings to improve to 16-6 with a 3.78 ERA this year.
Beckett’s season has endured its share of ups and downs, but as evidenced by his career high in innings, he has demonstrated more than at any other time as a big leaguer that he is a reliable presence in the rotation upon whom the Sox can count. He now has thrown 787 innings since the start of the 2006 season, a mark that ranks 17th in the majors during that time.
The nature of the talent is such that the Sox will happily take their chances with whatever the pitcher might provide in a year when he’s healthy enough to log 200 innings. In 2009, Beckett is once again demonstrating why that is the case.
Here are four other lessons from the Sox’ win in Kansas City Wednesday night:
THE PAIRING OF BECKETT AND MARTINEZ CAN BE A WINNING ONE
At times, Beckett’s pace seemed slightly deliberate while he waited for the signs from Victor Martinez. As the pitcher readily admitted, he is still learning how to work with a catcher whom the team acquired at the trade deadline, and Martinez is still sorting through how to work with Beckett.
“We’re still feeling each other out,” Beckett said. “Obviously, you can’t expect him to go out there and he and I to be like me and Jason for three years now.”
Even so, Beckett allowed that working with Martinez on Wednesday was “fine … It was good.”
And, by and large, his results showed it. Beckett gave up a dozen hits but found a way to control the damage, yielding just two runs (both in the fourth inning). He was not pinpoint, but when he missed his spot it was typically down in the zone, meaning that his mistakes resulted in ground balls and singles rather than home runs.
“He was missing location, but that shows you what kind of pitcher he is,” Martinez said. He was able to hang in there and give us a pretty good chance to win the ballgame.”
The execution — except for a few elevated fastballs in a two-run fourth — was solid. Ultimately, the hit total on the night was deceiving. Beckett allowed 12 hits, the second most he’s ever permitted in his career. (On Aug. 29, 2007, he gave up 13 hits to the Yankees.) But most of the knocks were of the seeing-eye variety.
The breakdown (well-struck hits are in bold):
- 1st inning: Maier reaches on an infield single to second
- 2nd inning: Buck singles on a grounder to center, Betancourt reaches on a swinging bunt single
- 3rd inning: Butler singles to left on a grounder through the infield, Pena singles on a grounder to right
- 4th inning: Buck doubles on a grounder to left, Betancourt triples on a liner to left-center, DeJesus singles on a flare to right-center, Maier singles on a soft liner to right, Butler singles on a liner to left
- 6th inning: Betancourt singles on a grounder to center, Maier singles on a grounder to left
To summarize: Beckett allowed two infield hits, six hits (five singles, one double) on grounders that found holes, one on a lazy pop-up that fell between two outfielders, another on a soft liner that found a plot of earth, and just two — Betancourt’s triple and Butler’s fourth-inning single — on hard-hit balls.
It was not a virtuoso performance, but it was one in which the pitcher consistently elicited soft contact that sometimes resulted in hits. In the end, Beckett found plenty of reason for satisfaction.
“I definitely think I threw the ball better today than I have in a while,” he said. “They hit some balls at guys, and they hit some balls not at guys. I think they had eight ground ball hits. That means I’m keeping the ball down. I felt like I had a good sinker today.”
Beckett’s curve also proved sharp, as he used the pitch to induce five of his seven strikeouts. Though his fastball was, at times, vulnerable (he allowed five hits on either four-seam, two-seam or cut fastballs in the fourth inning), the overall effect was one of a pitcher who could find a groove while working in tandem with a catcher other than the one with whom he enjoys the most familiarity.
“He went through that little period there where everything was hard, it was flat and he made a couple of mistakes that they hit pretty hard,” Sox manager Terry Francona said. “But once he got into a rhythm and a flow, it was good. I thought his fastball had good life. He didn’t try to overthrow it. They just went through that little stretch there where they had a bunch of hits.”
While Beckett and Martinez might still have growing pains to endure, the success of their collaboration on Wednesday suggests that they can be effective when working together. Meanwhile, the Sox received a reminder of the payoff of featuring a lineup with Martinez behind the plate: The catcher extended his hitting streak to a career-high 22 games, and Boston's lineup has averaged 6.6 runs per game with him behind the plate.
MATSUZAKA’S ARM STRENGTH IS TREMENDOUS
Daisuke Matsuzaka just kept backing up and backing up and backing up. He started his long-toss at an ordinary distance but kept adding increments of 30 feet while unleashing throws that streaked across the outfield and into the mitt of bullpen catcher Manny Martinez.
Return throws required a couple of bounces to get to the pitcher. Onlookers were dazzled.
“He was throwing from the Party Deck!” one teammate joked of an area of Kauffman Stadium that resides well beyond the right field bleachers.
Ultimately, Matsuzaka moved to a distance that he estimated at roughly 100 meters, or approximately 330 feet, before winging the ball across the outfield and hitting the mitt of Martinez.
It was a testament to the fact that Matsuzaka’s right shoulder feels extremely strong in the aftermath of his consignment to Fort Myers to strengthen and condition. The notion was further affirmed in a 60-pitch bullpen session on Wednesday.
“I think it’s mostly about just being able to throw and really get after it with confidence,” Matsuzaka said through translator Masa Hoshino. “That feeling of strength that I have in my shoulder is really good, and that’s allowed me to really stretch it out with the distance this year.
“Even at those long distances, I feel really confident with the strength of my shoulder and also about really swinging my arm through really hard.”
The display suggested that, at a time of year when pitchers are often on fumes, Matsuzaka has the sort of power that characterized him at the time when he entered the majors in 2007. His demonstration prior to Wednesday’s game underscored the sense that he is strong and, at least from a physical standpoint, primed to contribute down the stretch.
YOUKILIS ISN’T SWEATING A SLUMP
Kevin Youkilis ended up in the hospital last week to be treated for back spasms and missed the entire three-game Red Sox-Angels series. Given the debilitating nature of the injury, it should perhaps come as little surprise that the cleanup hitter has struggled since returning to the lineup on the current road trip.
Youkilis went 0-for-4 with a walk and a strikeout on Wednesday. In his six games back in the lineup, Youkilis’ production has been almost non-existent. He has just three hits (all singles) and four walks in 30 plate appearances, good for a .115 average, .233 OBP, .115 slugging mark and just one RBI.
Of course, the mere fact that Youkilis is struggling following the injury does not mean that physical woes are responsible for his rough week. Aside from his strikeout, Youkilis made solid contact in his other at-bats on Wednesday, lining to left and center. Several of his outs have been of the loud variety — line drives and deep fly balls — in the past week, and so the corner infielder insists that he is fine.
“When I hit those line drives right at people, that’s when it really hurts,” he joked. “[The back is] fine. [There’s a] little tightness in my whole body, but it’s September. [There was the] same tightness in April. I’m fine. I’m good.”
THE ROTATION IS TAKING SHAPE
The Red Sox have slated Tim Wakefield to start on Tuesday at Fenway against the Blue Jays, which would give him seven days of rest following his outing Monday night in Kansas City. That represents a significant improvement over the 16 days of rest the knuckleballer needed between his Sept. 5 start against the White Sox and his outing against the Royals.
“He was struggling last time, real bad,” Francona said. “He may not make the start. But we think he’s going to be OK. We have to have, or we’d like to have, somewhat of a target so we can place everybody else. That’s kind of what we’re doing.”
Beckett is scheduled to start next Monday, which likely will put him in line for four days of rest before a Saturday start (which the Sox would hope to be an abbreviated outing in his final regular-season tuneup). Then, assuming the Sox open the ALDS on Thursday, Beckett would be available to make a Game 1 start on four days of rest.