ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – In public, Josh Beckett will not admit that he needs to evolve into a different pitcher to save the Boston Red Sox's season. Actually, Beckett probably would contest any assertion that his first name is Josh, or that he's 28 years old, or that he is of the male persuasion, so heavy is his need to act prickly for no apparent reason.
Beckett's orneriness generally is a good thing for the Red Sox, who figure it translates into victories. Not lately. Beckett is hurt, an oblique injury hampering his effectiveness and rendering him more Clark Kent than postseason Superman. The velocity on his fastball is off as much as 5 mph, the dive on changeup more surface than deep-sea and the bite of his curveball that of a newborn.
So, then, it would stand to reason that Beckett – the starter in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series against the Tampa Bay Rays, who hold a 3-2 lead – would adjust his approach like every great pitcher with diminished stuff and acute survival instinct.
"No," he said. "Same."
Were this true, Beckett would be a moron of the highest order. It isn't, of course, and he isn't, either. It's simply Beckett's defense mechanism, his inner self turning into an outer cactus.
Since the Rays marauded him in Game 2, Beckett has spent time during his four rest days talking with manager Terry Francona and pitching coach John Farrell about what he can and can't do. In that game, and his start in the AL Division Series, Beckett threw like a pitcher who's used to firing 96-mph fastballs and tricks himself into believing he still might.
"A pitcher has a point of reference, and if that point of reference is in the mid 90s to upper 90s … you still have the benefit of velocity to get away," Farrell said. "That hasn't been the case his last two starts. He's well aware of that."
Certainly the Red Sox hope so. Such delusion – or, if not that, pigheadedness – is ill-tolerated when it's the difference between a Game 7 and a plane ride home.
Beckett's primal instinct is to win, so he must somehow channel his past playoff magician without his usual bag of tricks. Beckett introduced himself as a Florida Marlin with a two-hit, 11-strikeout shutout in Game 5 of the 2003 NLCS, followed with four sterling innings on two days' rest in a Game 7 triumph, shut out the New York Yankees on five hits in the World Series clincher that year and only added to his lore with a Red Sox season-rescuing 11-strikeout gem against Cleveland in last year's ALCS.
Boston knows that Beckett.
If only that Beckett were here.
"He's not going to forget how to compete," Francona said. "So even if he's going out there with maybe close – maybe it's not 96, maybe it's 92, 93 – but he's still Beckett, that doesn't mean he can't win. That doesn't mean he can't dominate. …
"When he is relaxed and comfortable and just executing pitches, there may not be a better pitcher in the game. Even when he's not throwing 97. Again, there's been some things he's fighting. I mean, and some of it is inconsistency because of work, and it was hard for him. But again, if you have to give a ball to somebody in Game 6, I can't imagine not being excited to give him the ball."
Perhaps so, though Francona, like everyone, wants the Beckett who could spot that devastating fastball on the outside corner, a doctor with his round, red-seamed scalpel. That precision, too, is AWOL, which makes Beckett's task all the more difficult.
His trouble in Game 2 began and ended with his awful command. Of the 22 batters Beckett faced, only 10 saw first-pitch strikes. Seven of those hitters started their at-bats with 2-0 counts – including Evan Longoria in all three of his at-bats, in which he hit a home run, an RBI single and an RBI double that chased Beckett after 4 1/3 innings.
Velocity is paramount for power pitchers, the corn in their ethanol, and yet what separates hard throwers from great pitchers is the ability to harness it.
That is Beckett's imperative. Forget the last start, the oblique, the pressure – everything – throw the ball over the plate and hope the Rays miss it.
"We have to do what we do, regardless of who's on the mound, whether it's Josh Beckett, Sandy Koufax or Cy Young himself," Rays first baseman Carlos Peña said. "We expect Beckett to be at his best."
Beckett's teammates found their missing selves in Game 5, the greatest postseason comeback since 1929. David Ortiz rescued his series and Boston's with a three-run home run that cut a one-time 7-0 lead to 7-4, and J.D. Drew struck a two-run homer in the eighth inning and the game-winning hit an inning later.
Afterward, still stunned by what had just happened, the Red Sox began looking forward to Game 6 and impressing upon anyone who would listen that their faith in Beckett had not waned.
"People sometimes take a robotic view in that, hey, these are his numbers and this is what he's going to do," outfielder Jason Bay said. "They take the human element out of it. Josh is always one start away from being that guy. He's one start from being that dominant pitcher we're used to."
So the Red Sox hold out hope they can steal at least a strand or two of old Beckett's DNA and do some genetic modification. Winning with this Beckett is tenable, absolutely, as long as he recognizes what's apparent to everyone else.
The same just won't cut it.