BOSTON – There are days, nights, when the nine-man game becomes a one-man game, when the man who puts the ball in play is nearly that precise, that willful, and so exceptionally familiar with it that, on this Wednesday night, for instance, all of Boston would stand and encourage him as he went along.
They have seen those men here before, seen what they can do for a baseball club in October, and so Josh Beckett has for the moment taken the characteristics of former Red Sox aces Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens. And then he took it to the Los Angeles Angels.
The Red Sox opened October on the back of Beckett's fastball, on the shoulders of his 108-pitch masterwork. Less than 2½ hours after he started it, Beckett ended it, the crowd swaying, the Red Sox grinning, the Angels turning abruptly away.
"It's a really cool thing to be able to go out there and be the only pitcher that pitches for your team that day," Beckett said.
The final score was 4-0 Red Sox, the four runs amounting to gross overkill.
For the first time since division play began nearly three decades ago, the league leader in wins (Beckett, 20) shared a mound with the league leader in ERA (John Lackey, 3.01). And, still, it was a mismatch.
Where Lackey wobbled, Beckett steadied.
Where Lackey fumbled, Beckett grasped.
Where Lackey doubted, Beckett hammered the strike zone with fastballs, from strike one on, then flicked at the corners with breaking balls. He got 19 consecutive Angels between Chone Figgins in the first inning to Vladimir Guerrero in the seventh inning, only three of those outs reaching the outfield. He worked the handles of their bats, then the ends of their bats, struck out eight and walked none.
When it was done, Beckett had thrown his second consecutive postseason shutout, three years and 49 weeks passing between Game 6 of the 2003 World Series and Game 1 of this division series, and the third shutout in his last four postseason starts.
Against the Angels, he allowed only four singles and two runners – Figgins in the first, Erick Aybar in the eight – past first base.
So, where Lackey's postseason reputation continued to slide – he has started four playoff games since that glorious World Series Game 7 in 2002 and won none of them – Beckett's matured.
The Red Sox got a solo home run from Kevin Youkilis in the first inning, a two-run home run from David Ortiz and a run-scoring single from Mike Lowell in the third inning. Afterward, Lackey rued command issues early – "a couple pitches," he said – and a few adjustments made too late.
"But," he said, "it was too late, because he was pitching so well."
Asked to specify that which he attempted to correct, Lackey smiled and said, "I'm not going to get into that. We might go another round."
The error he'll relive perhaps, is the curveball Ortiz knocked into the right-field bleachers. There was an out in the third inning. Youkilis was at second base. Lackey's instructions were to pitch Ortiz out of the strike zone early, see if he couldn't get a harmless pop-up or ground ball, then deal with Manny Ramirez, the right-handed hitter.
If the count reached 2-and-0, the Angels would have intentionally walked Ortiz. After ball one, Lackey hung a curveball in the strike zone. Ortiz doesn't generally miss those, certainly not in October.
"I wasn't even trying to throw a strike there," Lackey said.
It was all Beckett needed. On his way to 18 consecutive scoreless playoff innings, Beckett used the four-run lead to further bury the Angels in strikes.
"Beckett was as good as we've seen him," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.
It's saying something: In four previous starts against the Angels, Beckett was 2-0 with a 2.16 earned-run average. Lackey, on the other hand, had a 6.27 ERA in 11 previous starts against the Red Sox, 7.46 at Fenway Park.
"I don't think you're going to be able to pitch a much better game than that," Scioscia continued. "We didn't get too many looks at him, you know. And we just didn't pitch early in the game at a high enough level to stay within a run or two to give ourselves a chance to manufacture or do something."
That "high-enough level" would have something to do with the curveball that wasn't supposed to be a strike.
Here's the interesting thing for the Angels, who just had their halos handed to them over a very short evening: Beckett is actually quite a bit better on the road than he is at Fenway Park, meaning a short series might have just gotten a lot shorter.
As the rotation turns, Beckett would get the ball again in Game 4 in Anaheim. So would Lackey. Beckett's ERA is about two runs lower on the road, though the possibility of him being better than in Game 1 is pretty slim.
As it was, he took the mound in the ninth inning to a standing ovation, and left the ninth inning the same way.
"I'm just out there trying to execute pitches until somebody takes the ball out of my hand," he said, "and the game's over."