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With Francona, seeing is not believing

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – When Josh Beckett is pitching these days, Terry Francona puts on his special glasses. They allow the Boston Red Sox manager to see the world as if it's 2007, when Beckett was a dominant pitcher and not an injured slouch.

Were Francona to have removed his specs sometime before Beckett blew up on Saturday night, the Red Sox could be heading back to Fenway Park with the American League Championship Series in their pocket. Instead, he kept staring through them, pitch after sad pitch, the 2008 Beckett a shell of himself who blew three leads in Tampa Bay Rays' thrilling 9-8 victory in 11 innings that evened the series 1-1.

Before this goes any further: Francona has two World Series rings and is seven wins this postseason away from guaranteeing himself a spot in the Hall of Fame. He is Joe Torre redux, a man with a deft enough touch to manage all the egos that permeate a team as talented as the Red Sox. He is the perfect manager for Boston.

That said, Game 2 was Francona's "Waterworld."

The Red Sox could have buried Tampa Bay. If the Rays – the young, haven't-been-here, can't-quite-grasp-this-yet Rays – lost the series' first two games at Tropicana Field, their regular-season Valhalla, they might as well have traveled to Boston in caskets.

When Francona chose to send Beckett back out for the bottom of the fifth inning, after the Red Sox had taken a 6-5 lead, he strapped the Red Sox to the pitcher he considered his 18-wheeler – only it happened to have a busted headlight, spider-webbed windshield, cracked fender and empty gas tank.

"We wanted Beckett to get through that fifth and set up our bullpen," Francona said, "and it didn't work."

The strategy, grand in theory, failed in practice because Francona should have seen all the signs. Particularly with Beckett's fastball velocity.

During the regular season, Beckett threw 1,485 fastballs. They averaged 95.48 mph. Eight were in the 91-mph range. One clocked in at 90 mph.

On Saturday night, 56 of Beckett's 93 pitches were fastballs. Four came in at 91 mph, two at 90 mph.

"I don't pay attention to that [expletive]," Beckett said.

He should.

The difference between a 91-mph fastball and a 96-mph fastball is, oh, $50 million or so, not to mention a much better chance of recording outs. With his fastball velocity down, Beckett's 87-mph changeup looked like a meatball to Evan Longoria, who mashed a first-inning home run.

Two innings later, B.J. Upton hit a 91-mph fastball out to left field, and Cliff Floyd followed in the fourth inning with a monster shot to center field off a 93-mph fastball.

By the fifth, Beckett was spent. Longoria doubled off his final pitch of the night, a 90-mph fastball, and Francona finally removed his glasses. Beckett returned to the dugout with a shell-shocked look. He locked eyes with no one. He slipped on his jacket, sat down and stared ahead.

"Everybody knows that he's got better stuff than what he showed tonight," Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz said. "And when you go through what he's been through, it's hard, man. He's trying to fight back and trying to help this ballclub. But there's not too much he can do about it."

Whether it's tendinitis in his right elbow or a strained oblique that struck before the postseason, something has turned Beckett from one of the greatest postseason pitchers in history to a bum.

Following the game, he insisted: "I'm fine." Really? Last year, he gave up four runs in 30 postseason innings. This postseason, Beckett has surrendered 12 runs in 9 1/3 innings.

"You can tell he's not really himself," Floyd said. "He's not going to run away from the opportunity to go out there and give his team a chance to win the ballgame. I've played with him. I've seen him on TV when he's done outstanding. But he doesn't have all his pitches.

"I just know it's not typical him. He's usually 95, 96 with his yakker working and his changeup being devastating."

The opponent could tell he wasn't the same.

So why couldn't Francona?

He's guilty of the same thing that makes him such a great manager: having faith in his players. By insisting he's healthy – his pride getting in the way of his team's success – Beckett puts Francona in a difficult position. Can he really question someone with such a prolific postseason résumé?

"That's a lot of confidence from his manager," Floyd said, "believing 'I've got a competitor out there on the mound, and he's going to give me everything he has.' I think anybody else comes out. Knowing Beckett and what he's been through and what he's done, you have to give him the opportunity."

Francona did. And though the Red Sox tied the game after Beckett exited with an 8-6 deficit, only to lose on an Upton sacrifice fly that scored Fernando Perez, the sentiment afterward remained the same: Beckett had bombed bad and taken the Red Sox from sure thing to tenuous maybe.

"It's frustrating whenever your team scores eight runs and you can't win the [expletive] game," Beckett said. "That's the frustrating thing."

His final line was 4 1/3 innings, nine hits, eight runs, one walk, five strikeouts, two F-bombs and enough scowls to make the Elias Sports Bureau's official scowl counter earn time and a half.

He didn't care to speculate on his next start, either, and what sorts of adjustments he can make to succeed. The Red Sox have plenty of time to figure it out, with Beckett's next start not until Saturday. Whether it's some sort of an injection – Beckett reportedly received a pain-killing shot before pitching in the AL Division Series – or a mechanical tweak, he needs something, because even with Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jon Lester dealing, Boston can't afford this year's Beckett.

Francona tried to stand up for his pitcher. He offered no excuses. Merely the truth.

"He made some mistakes, and he paid for them," Francona said.

Sounds a lot like Francona's night, actually. He, too, made a mistake. The Red Sox paid for it.

Perhaps he'll use Sunday's off day to find a good optometrist.

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