Beckett's pitch for immortality

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

BOSTON – His face writhed. His legs bounced. His hands fidgeted. Boston Red Sox right-hander Josh Beckett, poor, poor guy, looked as though he'd rather be trapped in an alligator's jaws than answering questions about his start in Game 1 of the World Series tonight at Fenway Park.

Ornery Texan? Oh, yeah. And with good reason: That edge, that attitude, that ability to make everything into an annoyance – and then channel it toward home plate – has helped make Beckett into one of baseball's all-time great postseason pitchers before his 28th birthday.

Some poor, innocent guy tried to yank an answer out of Beckett as to whether there was some sort of feeling in the air during October that has helped him pile up otherworldly numbers in his five postseason series. In 65 2/3 innings, Beckett has allowed 34 hits, walked 13 and struck out 73. He has thrown three shutouts, including one in Game 6 of the 2003 World Series, and is 5-2 with a 1.78 earned-run average. His teams have never lost a playoff series.

"Special emotion?" Beckett asked. "No."

He might as well have been a robot.

Beck-ett not feel e-mo-tion.
Beck-ett just ex-e-cute pitch.

In reality, there is a special emotion that Beckett hides inside of him, igniting the coal that keeps him running. Anger, frustration, excitement, competitiveness, fear, happiness? Maybe a potion made of all those ingredients.

"I think I'm pretty much a normal guy on the day I pitch," Beckett said. "I come in, having fun, talking to guys. I don't think I do anything differently. I try not to alienate the people that are going to help me win ballgames."

Those people, so awestruck by Beckett's postseason mastery, would let him troll around the clubhouse naked all evening if that prepared him for his starts. (Presumably – and prayerfully – it does not.)

Whatever Beckett's strategy, it works. Already he has positioned himself among the 10 best pitchers in postseason history, his lack of innings notwithstanding.

It would be folly to call him better than his teammate Curt Schilling, the Red Sox's Game 2 starter, who has 10 victories, a 2.25 ERA, a 116-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a bloody sock on his résumé.

And no pitcher in history will one-up Christy Mathewson's 1905 World Series, in which he threw shutouts in Games 1, 3 and 5. Though Mathewson's New York Giants lost their three other World Series appearances, his earned-run average in those series was 1.33, and his 0.97 ERA ranks second among pitchers with at least 50 innings.

First is Sandy Koufax, at 0.95, and also Mathewson's rival for single-series accomplishment. He lost Game 1 of the 1965 World Series against Minnesota, gave the Dodgers the series lead with a four-hit shutout in Game 5 and came back on two days' rest to throw a three-hit shutout in Game 7.

Also in the discussion: Whitey Ford, whose 10 World Series victories remain the most in history; Mariano Rivera, whose 0.77 ERA in more than 100 innings remains one of the underappreciated accomplishments in baseball history; and John Smoltz, the most surprising name to appear on the list, and criminally overlooked because the Atlanta Braves have won just one World Series. In the playoffs, Smoltz is 15-4 with a 2.65 ERA and has thrown 207 innings, the third most in history.

So, yeah, Beckett isn't quite there yet. A great World Series and the argument in his favor strengthens. He's got the 98-mph fastball, the neck-to-knee curveball, the stare that's offset by the tiny soul patch and chin whiskers – the intimidating stuff complemented by the intimidating glance.

"He's a really good pitcher," Colorado Rockies slugger Matt Holliday said. "He's great in the playoffs, too."

Notice the difference. He is good, and was good, during the regular season. Playoff greatness, though, is a completely different beast. Schilling is deified for his work in the postseason and likely will get into the Hall of Fame on its merits. Beckett's three shutouts in nine playoff starts register even more incredible when considering he's had two in 166 regular-season starts.

The Rockies smacked him around at Fenway Park for his first loss of the season in June during interleague play. It's not just Holliday. They have Brad Hawpe, Garrett Atkins, Todd Helton, Troy Tulowitzki, all 90-plus-RBI guys, and Kaz Matsui and Willy Taveras, pests not even the Orkin man could exterminate.

They want to wreck the legacy.

Beckett wants to preserve it, to add another line to his curriculum vitae, one alongside the World Series MVP and American League championship series MVP and the huge, diamond-studded ring he owns.

No matter what Josh Beckett says, he wants to be the greatest. And he's getting there one ornery step at time.

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