Aces high

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

BOSTON – He was at Fenway Park, and Josh Beckett's eyes barely blinked. They dare not. His mandible was square and taut as a cobblestone. He glared at his target, bright lights above casting him sinisterly. His lips whitened against themselves, stressed against all that stood before him.

"It's October," he said, almost to himself.

Josh Beckett does attack a press conference.

Wait 'til he gets the ball.

Nine days since four-hitting the Los Angeles Angels, initiating the Boston Red Sox's division series three-and-in, Beckett opens the American League championship series Friday night against Cleveland Indians left-hander C.C. Sabathia.

Nine days since he outclassed AL earned-run average leader John Lackey, he opposes the pitcher – Sabathia – who should finish beside him for the Cy Young Award, Beckett's one to Sabathia's two, or flip them.

On only five occasions have the leading Cy Young vote-getters met after the ballots had been cast, according to STATS.

Meaning Sabathia vs. Beckett, 2007 ALCS, should follow:

Roger Clemens (Yankees) vs. Mark Mulder (A's), 2001 ALDS (twice)

• Steve Carlton (Phillies) vs. Tommy John (Dodgers), 1977 NLCS (twice)

• Tom Seaver (Mets) vs. Phil Niekro (Braves), 1969 NLCS

As power pitchers turned against power lineups, as true aces at a time when middle-of-the-rotation starters masquerade as (and are compensated as) aces, as 27-year-olds with sound arms and boundless futures, Sabathia vs. Beckett is the most captivating confrontation of the 2007 postseason, and most others.

"It's going to be a great matchup," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "Their guy is one of the best in the game. We feel like our guy is one of the best in the game. I think when you get to this time of season, it's pretty awesome, and that's why we're playing this game. Anything less would be a little disappointing."

In a late July series in Cleveland, Sabathia pitched seven innings and lost to the Red Sox, 1-0, on Mike Lowell's RBI single. The next day, Beckett pitched eight innings and lost to the Indians, 1-0, on Franklin Gutierrez's home run.

Sabathia's ERA against the Red Sox from that start, in which he had seven strikeouts and no walks, is 1.29. Beckett's, in two 2007 starts against the Indians, is 1.80, partly the result of 14 strikeouts and one walk in 15 innings.

After six good seasons in which the results did not always align with scouts' views of his abundant potential, Sabathia became dominant in 2007 and won 19 games. He beat Johan Santana three times. In six seasons, Beckett came close to something like dominance, then found it in his second season in Boston, winning 20 games and being cast as the next Pedro, or Roger, or Schill.

An AL scout who saw them both many times broke down their games:

On Beckett: "He needs to establish fastball command early in the game, especially the fastball on the inner half to allow his well-above average curveball to be totally effective. He's quick to the plate and might have the easiest mid-90's fastball in the game. He pounds the lower half. Tends to throw a lot of pitches in early innings, then settles down. Extremely tough on left-handed hitters because of the curveball."

On Sabathia: "He has really elevated his game in 2007, displaying a lot of presence and [gumption]. He got hit with a liner in a game against the Angels and would not come out. He had more innings than just about anybody, and just stepped up his overall game. Power arm with well-above average command and two really good breaking balls and a solid above-average changeup. Much better athlete than you'd think with that physique. Gives his team a chance to win just about every time out. No way of knowing how he'll pitch on this stage, but my guess is that he will be really good after getting over the jitters, which is why the Red Sox might be very patient early in the game. I think the Yankees' homers by left-handed hitters were flukes."

Indeed, where Beckett was nearly unhittable in his first postseason start since the clinching game of the 2003 World Series, Sabathia was erratic in his second career playoff start, and his first in six years, last week against the Yankees.

He threw 114 pitches in five innings in Game 1, in a friendly Jacobs Field. He walked five Yankees unintentionally, and allowed home runs to left-handed hitters Robinson Cano and Johnny Damon. The list of lefties who homered against Sabathia in the regular season: Darin Erstad, Jack Cust, Carlos Pena.

This was the former Sabathia, the Sabathia of his early 20s who threw toward 100 mph and squeezed the ball until it came apart in his hand.

An hour after Beckett had left the same chair, those 10 minutes bringing vows to execute pitches and prepare fully, Sabathia, the big man with a chummy personality, sat with a broad smile.

"You know," he said, "instead of going out there and trying to throw every pitch 100 and leaving balls up and leaving them down the middle, go out and throw 91 and 92 and spot it up, get in on guys. And if I need to hump up and throw hard, then I will.

"It was the first game against the Yankees, first game of the playoffs, first playoff game in six years. So, I was excited. It was just one of those deals."

The Red Sox are figuring on the 19-game winner, not the five-Yankee walker. As such, Francona has benched left-handed hitter J.D. Drew in favor of switch-hitter Bobby Kielty, a .310 hitter with two home runs in 29 at-bats against Sabathia.

"Maybe," Francona said, "he runs into a ball."

That may be what wins it. One guy runs into one ball, and everybody goes home.

Yeah, October. One vs. two. Or, flip them.

"Everybody is locked in this time of year," Beckett said. "Ain't nobody out there just flailing away."

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