Thriving Beckett has that winning feeling
Right-hander's rise has him on cusp of first All-Star berth
SEATTLE -- A crowning moment awaits Josh Beckett on Sunday, when the All-Star selections are announced.
Tied for the Major League lead with 11 wins, Beckett, who has been a World Series Most Valuable Player but never an All-Star, is about as close to a slam dunk as there is. But he won't jinx such a great accomplishment by talking about it.
"I've got to make the team first," said Beckett, a minor trace of annoyance in his voice. "They haven't even named it yet."
But if you want to talk with Beckett about other subjects that pertain to his success this year and the events that have shaped his perspective along the way, just pull up a chair beside his locker on a day he's not pitching. He's more than willing to chat about that.
Life is good when you are Josh Beckett these days, and he knows it. For Beckett is in the prime of his pitching career at age 27. He is winning, he's on a winning team and he has the security of a contract that runs through 2009 and includes a club option for 2010.
Here is the ultimate what if: What if Beckett had told the Red Sox thanks, but no thanks, when they offered him that three-year, $30 million contract last July?
He would have been a free agent following this season, and perhaps ready for a financial windfall following what sure looks to be a breakout 2007. Then again, maybe Beckett wouldn't be pitching at such a high level without the security.
"Yeah, the whole free agency thing? I don't know how I would have dealt with that," said Beckett. "I wouldn't change anything that I've done. I get to pitch for the Boston Red Sox for three years, as long as I pull my weight. Do people have better contracts than me? Yeah. You know what? I'm happy with my contract. It's nice to come here and be 20 games over .500 at the [halfway] mark. To me, there's no amount of money that can make me go backwards."
To general manager Theo Epstein and the Boston front office, the move was a no-brainer, even though Beckett was struggling at the time the deal was done.
"The best time to sign players is when they're struggling a bit," said Epstein. "It gives the player a little security and confidence, and the club usually gets a better bargain as well. We anticipated that the market for starting pitching would go through the roof last winter, and we didn't want someone else's signing to negatively impact our ability to sign Josh. He loved pitching in Boston, and we had certainly seen enough of him to be comfortable that he would make the necessary adjustments to become a dominant member of our rotation."
Make no mistake about it, Beckett has become addicted to the winning feeling that has engulfed the clubhouse of the Boston Red Sox.
"It's a business to me, but to be comfortable on the field of play, there's no amount of money that can make me go somewhere and lose 100 games a year," said Beckett. "I don't care. There's not enough money for that. I have money. I want to win. I want to be on a championship-caliber team. I want to come to the park every day and know we're going to win. When we don't win, I'm surprised. I like that feeling. Like I said, it makes for the season to be a lot shorter."
Sure, there was that run of glory Beckett had with the Marlins in 2003, when the team surged down the stretch and he led them right to the top of the baseball mountain by silencing the mighty New York Yankees. But there was also too much losing for Beckett's taste during his years (2001-05) in Florida.
"When you're on losing teams, the season feels like it's 500 days long," said Beckett. "I don't like coming in every day and having to be the guy that tries to pick everybody up because everybody is struggling. It's fun coming to the park on the day you pitch. Some days with the Marlins, I'd wait as long as I could to get to the field."
Spreading the wealth
It has often been said by members of the media that Beckett is more quotable after a loss than he is after a win. Generally, that is true. The reason is that Beckett isn't a huge fan of pumping himself up. It all comes back to a motto he picked up from his dad.
"My dad always told me, 'Give credit and take blame.' I think that this is such a team game that unless you're out there just striking everyone out, guys are making plays behind you," said Beckett. "Wins and losses, I'm not going to say they're completely luck, but a lot of things have to go right for you to win a game. Guys have to score runs, guys have to play defense. You can lose a game and not give up any earned runs. Guys have to play defense behind you, guys have to hit."
The Red Sox have developed a confident vibe on days Beckett takes the hill. And why not? He is 11-1 with a 3.07 ERA, and hitters have a meager .222 average against him.
"Everyone kept talking about run support this and run support that," said Beckett, for whom the Red Sox have averaged 6.4 runs per game. "I love that. I like that the guys are happy playing behind me. I think that's what it takes, and that's why you sometimes get more run support than the next guy."
Taking it to another level
Has Beckett ever pitched better than he has this year? It all depends on how you look at it.
"I'll tell you, I've had some good games this year," said Beckett. "But the second half of the 2003 season and into the playoffs was pretty good."
Mike Lowell, the third baseman who was traded to Boston along with Beckett, was around for both of those runs. What Lowell sees these days from the hot corner is a more finished product, and not just an enormously talented pitcher who has caught lightning in a bottle.
So again, the question is this: Is Beckett pitching better now than ever before?
|"I want to win. I want to be on a championship-caliber team. I want to come to the park every day and know we're going to win. When we don't win, I'm surprised. I like that feeling."|
|-- Josh Beckett|
"I point back to the Toronto game, where Alex Rios hit his first pitch out. The old Josh would have wanted to throw it 180 miles an hour after that because he was upset. He actually ended up turning in a dominant start, which shows you that he's willing to put things to the side and focus on what he needs to do."
For the 2006 version of Beckett would have, as Lowell suggested, tried to throw the ball right through the opposition instead of maybe snapping one of the gorgeous curves he's been dropping in there time and again this season. The 2006 Beckett was rocked for 36 homers and a 5.01 ERA, although he did win a career-high 16 games and make all his turns in the rotation. This Beckett has allowed all of five home runs in 14 starts.
"I don't even think about [last year]," Beckett said. "It was one of those deals where I had a lot of good things come out of last year. There's a great quote that says, 'You can't be afraid to fall. You just have to make sure you fall forward.' I don't remember who said it. In turn, it means when you fall, you have to make sure you learn from it. There ain't no one in here who hasn't fallen. This is a humbling game. Every one of us has fallen at one point in our life. We have to make sure we learn from it."
Overcoming aches and pains
Now that he is over it, Beckett confesses that he went through a dead-arm period leading into and during his six innings of shutout baseball against the Braves on June 19. It also explains why Red Sox manager Terry Francona had no temptation to bring Beckett back that night following a rain delay of 48 minutes.
Beckett worked through the dead arm, and the explosion was back in his fastball while outdueling Jake Peavy in a marquee pitching matchup this past Sunday in San Diego. Beckett said the dead arm had not cropped up until after the Rockies shelled him for 10 hits and six runs over five innings on June 14, in his one poor outing of the year.
"I went through a little dead-arm spell here in the last eight or nine days," said Beckett. "It was after that [Colorado] start. Even in the Braves start, I kind of felt it a little bit. You learn to deal with that stuff. It's growing things that you go through in the course of a season."
It is because of the way Beckett has commanded his offspeed pitches this year that he could get by against the Braves when his fastball was a little flat.
"All it is, it's like lifting weights," said Beckett. "You lift weights and your muscles get sore because you're breaking down muscle tissue and it builds back up. It's no different than pitching. Usually I go through it in Spring Training. I never had it in Spring Training this year. I don't want to have it anymore this year."
Before the dead arm, there was the avulsion on Beckett's right middle finger that developed on Mother's Day against the Orioles. Considering that Beckett has been sidelined various times in his career by finger issues, this could have put him off the track. Instead, he took his medicine -- not to mention 15 days on the disabled list -- and kept all of his focus on staying in his groove.
"Once again, my teammates during that 15 days, every one of them was coming up and giving me that little bit of encouragement," Beckett said. "'Hey, how's the finger? How are you doing? You doing OK?' That's big. One day I threw in New York and had a five-inning sim game. We stayed on my routine while I was on the DL. A lot of the guys picked me up on those days I was coming in and having not much to do. I couldn't help the team and whatnot, but we kept winning.
Thirst for October
Beckett tasted the pinnacle of being a baseball player during that autumn of 2003, when the upstart Marlins roared through the Giants, Cubs and Yankees.
In the three ensuing Octobers -- two as a Marlin and one with the Red Sox -- Beckett and his teams did not qualify for postseason play.
The 2003 ride with the Marlins was a thrill enough for Beckett. He can imagine what the postseason would be like in the high-voltage atmosphere of Red Sox Nation.
"I really can't wait," said Beckett. "I think it's going to be an exciting ride. We just have to keep everything going in the right direction and don't get too far away from tomorrow. I think that's what a lot of teams do, they try to get too far away from tomorrow. And then tomorrow slips away and the next day, and the next thing you know you're treading water, and the next thing you know, you're going backwards."
To go backwards for just a second, Lowell can indulge Red Sox followers by recalling exactly what Beckett did in October 2003.
"For two weeks, he was as dominating as anyone," said Lowell. "And it was every time. He pitched four innings of relief in Chicago in Game 7 on two days' rest. That was great."
Beckett wants to build new memories in a different city.
"There's nothing like pitching in the playoffs and being a part of that and contributing and trying to help a team win a world championship," Beckett said. "It's the ultimate goal."
In the meantime, a smaller goal -- one Beckett won't say much about until Sunday afternoon -- is on the verge of being reached.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.