ANAHEIM, Calif. – Josh Beckett is the pitcher the Red Sox want on the mound when the outcome matters. Josh Beckett has always been the pitcher that everyone wanted on the mound when the outcome mattered.
That notion was most clearly demonstrated in 2002. John Henry had become the chief financier of a group that had purchased the Red Sox, but doing so required that he sell the Marlins. And so, the billionaire struck a deal with Jeffrey Loria to transfer Florida.
But he tried to attach a condition to the deal. Henry wanted the Marlins to transfer Beckett’s rights to the Red Sox.
“It wasn’t a joke. [Sox vice chairman] David Ginsberg was trying to negotiate that. It was a true story,” Henry recalled on the field at Angel Stadium before Game 1 of the ALDS. “I think we were asking for Burnett and Beckett. At one point, we were willing to settle for Josh in a magnanimous gesture.”
Henry, of course, had a vested interest in the pitcher. The Marlins had drafted Beckett with the second overall pick of the 1999 draft, making the right-hander the first-ever Marlins pick under Henry; Florida signed the high-school right-hander to an unprecedented four-year, $7 million major-league contract.
Of course, the Marlins were able to view the right-hander as anything but a risk. They saw a pitcher with the poise to dominate under any circumstance.
“Josh Beckett may have had the best on-the-field makeup of any amateur I’ve ever scouted,” explained David Chadd, who saw several of Beckett’s starts when the pitcher was a high-school senior and Chadd – who later became the head of amateur scouting for the Sox and now the Tigers – was a Midwest cross-checker for the Marlins.
“He had a professional approach to pitching at 18, 19 years old. I’ve seen many amateurs since then, and I can’t say that I’ve seen many, or any, who had that ability like Josh did.
“I will be very blunt on this one: he was a very easy read. When you went to see Josh Beckett pitch, you saw the same thing every time out: power fastball, power curveball, plus changeup, plus-plus control and a demeanor about him where he was going to go out and he was going to win, just like you’re seeing in the major leagues now. The Josh Becketts of the world, those are the easy ones.”
That was impressive enough. But Henry saw something else in the pitcher.
After the Marlins signed Beckett to the richest deal ever given to a high-school pitcher, the Marlins owner met the teenager for the first time. The two talked when Beckett was introduced as a member of the Marlins in the Houston Astrodome about the civic responsibility of a baseball star, and the importance of community involvement by athletes.
“I sat with him to talk about the Florida Marlins Foundation, about how he was going to be a big star in this game and he could have an impact in the community,” recalled Henry. “Two or three weeks later, I was in my office and received a letter from him with a check inside for $100,000 – he was 19 years old – to the Florida Marlins Foundation.
“I was floored,” Henry continued. “Without saying a word, he wrote a check and said, ‘Use it for the best purpose you can.’”
That commitment helped to forge an attachment between the pitcher and the owner. Henry made a point of flying to the right-hander’s Double A debut in Portland in 2001. His trip was rewarded when Beckett proved all but untouchable, his gifts on the mound obvious to any onlooker.
Since then, of course, Beckett’s talents have become most evident on the game’s biggest stages, and especially when his team has needed him most.
He fired a two-hit shutout when the Marlins were down 3-to-1 in a win-or-go-home scenario against the Cubs in the 2003 NLCS. He punched out 11 Indians over eight innings of one-run ball when the Sox were down 3-to-1 in the 2007 ALCS. Last year, unable to lift his arm over his head, he gutted his way through five innings while allowing two runs to earn a win and stave off elimination in Game 6 of the ALCS against the Rays.
Beckett insists that he does not alter his approach based on such circumstances.
“You need to win every game. You're trying to,” said Beckett. “The first [team] to 11 [playoff wins] is the one who takes home the ultimate prize. Every game it means a lot. Whether you're up two games to nothing, you're not trying to give any games away.”
Of course, based on track record, makeup and stuff, the Sox consider Beckett uniquely positioned to respond to the challenge of circumstance, whether he views it that way or not. Beckett has always been a money pitcher in every sense of the team, and so the team believes it has the perfect players on the mound to even the series on Friday.
“When you’re in a game where you really want your ace on the mound, I don’t know that there’s anyone else you’d want but him. We’re throwing our big dog at them,” said third baseman Mike Lowell. “We’ve got a lot of confidence in Josh. I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
That sort of conviction helps to explain why an owner would try to leverage the sale of a franchise into a means of acquiring a pitcher who has been viewed as a dominating force since his high-school days. Beckett, who was 17-6 with a 3.86 ERA this year during the regular season, has flipped a switch in October, going 7-2 with a 2.90 ERA and incredible 96-to-20 strikeout to walk ratio in the playoffs.
“He works really hard every day of the week, so when his day comes, he can go out and be ready to rise to the occasion,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “He doesn't have to try to push a button. He's prepared for what he's supposed to do. Because of his talent, he put that together in a lot of big situations. He's come up big.”
Now, the Sox will hope that he can do just that once more. In many respects, the fate of their season may rest on Beckett’s ability to come up big once more.