The depth of quality starting pitching on the Boston Red Sox gave manager Terry Francona the luxury of giving Josh Beckett as much time to heal as necessary in both the AL division series last week, and now the league championship series.
Beckett and the Red Sox will try to reap the dividends of those extra days off Saturday night when they attempt to take a 2-0 series lead over the Tampa Bay Rays.
Beckett (0-0, 7.20 ERA) has arguably been the best postseason starter of this decade, going 6-2 with a 2.09 ERA in 10 starts and 11 overall appearances - including 4-0 in as many starts with a 1.20 ERA last year in helping the Red Sox win the World Series. But the right-hander looked out of sorts Sunday in Game 3 of the division series as he tried to overcome a strained side muscle suffered late in the regular season, giving up four runs and nine hits—including two home runs—in five innings of Boston’s eventual 7-5, 12-inning loss to the Los Angeles Angels.
But with that being his lone start in a 19-day span, Francona is confident Beckett will find the playoff form that led to him winning the 2003 World Series and 2007 ALCS Most Valuable Player awards.
“He’s fine physically,” Francona said. “The farther he’s removed from his problems of last week, he can concentrate on his routine and concentrate on pitching instead of trying to get better. If you don’t physically have the stuff to do it, you’re probably kind of running upstream a little bit.”
Beckett pitched well against the Devil Rays this year, going 2-1 with a 2.06 ERA in five starts while striking out 37 in 35 innings. He also pitched well despite an 0-1 record in two starts at Tropicana Field, limiting the Rays to three runs—two on solo homers by Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena—in 15 innings.
“I think they were probably as good as they came in the major leagues this year,” Beckett said of the Rays, “not only against us watching them, but also watching them against other teams.”
Facing a big-game playoff pitcher like Beckett will prove a challenge to the resiliency of the upstart Rays after they were stifled by Daisuke Matsuzaka in Friday’s 2-0 loss in Game 1. Tampa Bay, which was held hitless until the seventh, failed to take advantage of Matsuzaka’s wildness in the first inning when he walked the bases loaded with two out, and in both the seventh and eighth innings when it put two runners on with no one out.
“Listen, it happens,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon, who let Carlos Pena swing away on a 3-0 count in the eighth against Hideki Okajima with runners on first and second with no one out that resulted in a lineout to right field before Longoria grounded into an inning-ending double play. “When you’re facing very good pitching at this time of the year, they can stifle you even with nobody out. We can do the same thing to them.”
Pena is 3-for-17 (.176) with eight strikeouts and a homer against Beckett, and Longoria is 4-for-12 with a home run.
Scott Kazmir (1-0, 3.38) will try to help the Rays salvage a split of the first two games. The left-hander worked in and out of trouble in his postseason debut Oct. 3, allowing two runs and eight hits in 5 1-3 innings in Tampa Bay’s 6-2 win in Game 2 over the Chicago White Sox.
Kazmir went 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA in four starts against Boston this year, but his ERA was inflated by a brutal outing Sept. 15, when he was tagged for nine runs and six hits—four of them home runs—in three-plus innings a 13-5 loss at home. The defeat left a lasting impression on Kazmir, who will be trying to stop the Red Sox from picking up a team-record seventh consecutive playoff road victory.
“The toughest thing for me would probably just be the team and how they go about playing nine innings,” he noted. “It feels like everyone has their role, has a part, and they don’t really get out of that all. You have to be on your ‘A’ game the entire time, the entire game.”
Kazmir has had a difficult time solving Dustin Pedroia, who is 14-for-25 (.560) lifetime against the lefty. Pedroia, though, is 2-for-20 through Boston’s five playoff games.
The series will shift to Fenway Park for at least the next two games on Monday and Tuesday, respectively.