The last pitch was so Texas of him. Just a big, nasty stream of dip spittle at convention. Josh Beckett built his entire career around embodying every archetype of the Texas power pitcher. He threw hard, he acted mean, he snarled, he grumbled, he won. He coordinated one of the great moments of ignominy in Red Sox history, heading the fried chicken-and-beer brigade, and he never bothered apologizing, because he didn't really care what anyone else thought.
So in this situation, on top of the mound Sunday at Citizens Bank Park, 8 2/3 no-hit innings in the books, a 3-2 count against the great Chase Utley, he chose the only pitch that could have prompted second-guessing. If Beckett leaves a curveball hanging, it happens, and if Utley dumps a changeup into left field, bummer, and if a fastball on the corners finds daylight, what an effort. A fastball down the middle, though? One right down the pipe, hollow of the knees, bisecting the plate like a knife halving a sandwich? If that goes for a hit, the very first question is: Who throws a fastball down the middle with a no-hitter on the line?
The answer is the pitcher smart enough to know it's the one thing a hitter won't anticipate. It's like the soccer player who strokes his penalty kick right up the middle because he knows the goalie is going right or left. There's always that sliver of a chance he's wrong, but the confidence it takes, the cool, needs to be bottled and sold.
Utley stared at Beckett's offering, of course, a 94-mph pea, the single hardest pitch he threw all day. And so began the celebration for the first no-hitter of his career and the first of the 2014 season, a 128-pitch, six-strikeout, three-walk gem of a 6-0 victory for the struggling Los Angeles Dodgers over the feckless Philadelphia Phillies. The Dodgers turned Beckett's personal space into a mosh pit, dumped a cooler of water on him and toasted the apex of his resurrection since Boston dumped him on the Dodgers two years ago.
Beckett's 2013 season ended with surgery to remedy the thoracic outlet syndrome that rendered him little more than mediocre for the Dodgers. Minus a rib from the procedure, Beckett came with the sort of stuff not seen from him for two years. While his fastball wasn't the 98-mph rocket fuel he threw as a 21-year-old, his 92 mph today more than suffices, especially with the curveball he's throwing nearly as often as his fastball.
It's a big, bendy beast, at 73 mph only 2 mph harder than the curves of soft-tossing Mark Buehrle and Bronson Arroyo. Only A.J. Burnett, his former teammate and opponent Sunday, throws his curve more than Beckett's 30.5 percent usage. He flung 40 of them against the Phillies, garnering four whiffs and making up for a sinker that didn't get a single swinging strike.
No-hitters are about luck as much as they are stuff, and for the 34-year-old Beckett to wait until his 14th season and 321st career start to get his first illustrates that. He's not better than he's ever been, and this wasn't the best start of his career. His World Series-winning shutout against the Yankees in 2003 as a 23-year-old was an all-time great performance. The no-no showed Beckett can cause havoc for an ill-constructed team that should be sponsored by Geritol.
Oh, sure, it also showed that Beckett still carries himself with that Texas swagger and that the Dodgers cannot be as bad as they've been so long as the similarly resurgent Dan Haren, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu stay healthy. Few rotations can match the Dodgers', and this is why they ate his contract during the Red Sox's mega-dump of 2012.
Beckett's contract was the price for getting Adrian Gonzalez, and now he's in his last year, no-hitting the Phillies for the first time in 36 years, throwing the Dodgers' first no-hitter since Hideo Nomo nearly two decades ago. He's not any smarter, not any more mature, not at all repentant, not anything but the Josh Beckett who spent his baseball career living by the ethos of his home state and never wavering.
When Beckett got a generous call for a strike on a curveball off the plate to bring Utley to a 3-2 count in the bottom of the ninth, in theory he had a choice. He could double up with his best pitch or flash the change that generated the most swings and misses Sunday or nibble at a corner – or go back to the one nobody expected.
Truth is, this wasn't a choice. This was Josh Beckett, Texas through and through, and he was going to do whatever he damn well pleased no matter what anyone else thought.
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