McAdam: New and improved Beckett in 2011

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McAdam: New and improved Beckett in 2011

By Sean McAdam
CSNNE.com Red Sox Insider Follow @sean_mcadam

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Across the continent, the Bruins were fashioning the perfect ending to their season. Inside Tropicana Field, Josh Beckett was flirting with some perfection of his own, albeit with far fewer people watching back in New England.

The game was played at a near furious pace, as though the Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays were intent on getting their game over with as quickly as possible, the better to watch the Bruins' quest for the Stanley Cup.

Beckett retired the first eight hitters he faced, had the run interrupted by an innocent infield single with two outs in the third, then calmly and efficiently, retired the next 19 Rays he faced until there were no more.

He had thrown 96 pitches and only one had yielded a baserunner.

When it was over and Beckett and the Red Sox had posted a 3-0 shutout, the outing served as an exclamation mark on Beckett's
season to date.

"That's about as good as you can pitch," remarked Terry Francona.

In 14 starts to date, Beckett has allowed one or no runs eight times. He's 6-2 with a league-best 1.86 ERA. That sort of dominance not only positions him as the early favorite to start the All-Star Game for the American League next month, it also puts him squarely into the Cy Young conversation as the season nears the mid-season point.

It's already been a remarkable season for Beckett.

In March, he was slotted in as the team's No. 4 starter and no matter how much the Red Sox insisted the rotation wasn't a pecking order, it sure looked like a lack of faith on the part of the Sox.

The same pitcher who was given a four-year, 68 million contract extension early last April was now being shielded from the imposing
Texas Rangers lineup in the first week, seemingly an afterthought behind Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.

But Beckett has re-established himself as one of the game's best starters over the last 2 12 months. He's beaten the New York Yankees three times, on each occasion out-pitching CC Sabathia, the same pitcher who beat him out for the Cy Young Award in 2007.

He's given up more than two runs just twice in his 14 starts and allowed more than three exactly once. He's given up just four homers in 92 innings and opposing hitters are batting a mere .174 against him.

Were it not for some suspect run support earlier -- even last night, his only backing came on one swing by Kevin Youkilis, and
that didn't come until the seventh inning -- Beckett surely would have nine or 10 wins by now. Before Wednesday, the Sox were scoring him an average of 3.9 runs per game, less than half of what they had provided Lester, who, in part because of the strong backing, has a team-high nine victories.

What's behind Beckett's return to glory. Three things:
1) He's not much of a tipper anymore.

Beginning early in spring training and continuing right up to his final exhibition start in Houston, two nights before the season opener, the Sox worked with Beckett on not tipping his pitches.

A few members of the organization noticed it when the team began its workouts at the Player Development Complex and pitching coach Curt Young zeroed in on the problem, coaxing Beckett to make a slight change in his delivery.
2) Better execution and use of his cut fastball.

As some pitchers do, Beckett fell in love with his cutter a year ago and it became too predictable.

This season, according to Francona, he's throwing it more judiciously, though Beckett, stubborn as ever, insists this isn't true.

But something's different. Beckett doesn't throw quite as hard with his four-seam fastball as he once did -- he's regularly 92-93 mph instead of the 95-96 mph he flashed in his youth.

He's more efficient -- needing just 97 pitches Wednesday night - and less dependent on strikeouts. Just three times in his 14 starts
has he fanned more than six.
3) He's more determined.

Beckett has never lacked competitiveness, as his mound demeanor suggests.

But he was plainly embarrassed by his 2010 season and when he got ready to return to Texas last fall, teammates and others in the
organization noted a dedication to return as good as ever.

Beckett hired a different personal trainer, spent time strengthening his core so as to avoid back injuries that had sidelined him in recent seasons and was intent on reporting to camp in better shape.

Months later, he's seeing the results.

And now, the contract extension that didn't actually kick in until the start of this season seems entirely appropriate, and not, as it did a year ago, a financial albatross the Red Sox were being forced to carry.

Sean McAdam can be reached at smcadam@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Sean on Twitter at http:twitter.comsean_mcadam.

Carrabis: Red Sox coaches were upset at John Farrell's usage of Craig Kimbrel

Carrabis: Red Sox coaches were upset at John Farrell's usage of Craig Kimbrel

Jared Carrabis says he was told that some Boston Red Sox coaches were not happy with the way John Farrell was over-using Craig Kimbrel, perhaps because he was trying to save his job.

Angels score three after overturned call, beat Red Sox, 4-2

Angels score three after overturned call, beat Red Sox, 4-2

BOSTON -- The Los Angeles Angels benefited from a fairly-new rule and relied on an old-fashioned type save to beat the Boston Red Sox.

Parker Bridwell pitched a solid 6 2/3 innings and Los Angeles scored three runs after its challenge overturned an inning-ending double play in the second, leading the Angels to a 4-2 win over the Red Sox on Sunday.

Bridwell (2-0) gave up two runs and seven hits, striking out four without issuing a walk.

Yusmeiro Petit pitched two scoreless innings for his first save.

"I don't care if it's old-fashioned or it's cutting edge, we need them," Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "We need guys to hold leads. Most closers are primarily the one-inning guys that are in that bubble."

Ben Revere had three singles and Kaleb Cowart drove in two runs for Los Angeles, which won two of three against the Red Sox for its fifth series win in the last six.

Doug Fister (0-1) lost his Red Sox debut, giving up three runs and seven hits in six-plus innings. He was signed by Boston on Friday after being released by the Angels.

Mitch Moreland and Jackie Bradley Jr. each hit a solo homer for the Red Sox, who lost their second straight at Fenway Park after winning 10 of the previous 12. Boston remained tied with New York atop the AL East.

Bridwell was Fister's teammate at Triple-A Salt Lake before he was let go.

"That's weird," Bridwell said. "I was in the same clubhouse with him a week-and-a-half ago or whatever and we were talking pitching. I was asking him certain things he did along the game, and the next thing you know we're starting against each other on the big-league level."

After the challenge overturned Danny Espinosa's 3-6-3 double play, Los Angeles got to Fister.

"That's modern-day baseball," Scioscia said.

Fister was pleased by his first start with Boston, and 200th of his career.

"Overall, it wasn't a bad day," he said. "They just put together some timely hits and took advantage of well-placed baseballs. That's what good clubs do and that's what they did today."

Espinosa was credited with a fielder's choice and RBI after the review. Cowart followed with an RBI double and Juan Gratetrol had a run-scoring single.

"He's a bang-bang play from a scoreless outing," Red Sox manager John Farrell said.

Moreland homered over the Angels' bullpen in the bottom half. Bradley Jr. hit his into the center-field bleachers in the fifth.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Angels: Scioscia said LHP Tyler Skaggs was scratched from a scheduled rehab start in the Arizona League on Saturday night with soreness in his oblique and abdominal area.

Red Sox: Farrell said ace lefty David Price has a middle finger-nail issue on his pitching hand, but "is expected" to make his next scheduled start. ... LHP Eduardo Rodriguez, on the 10-day DL with a right knee subluxation, will make a rehab start for Double-A Portland on Thursday after he felt fine following a 68-pitch bullpen session on Saturday.

ROSTER MOVE

The Angels recalled infielder Cowart from Triple-A Salt Lake before the game and optioned RHP Eduardo Paredes there before the game.

INSPIRATIONAL MESSAGE

The Red Sox put a message on the center-field board, wishing NESN analyst Jerry Remy: "Best of Luck, Jerry, on your surgery tomorrow!"

The crowd gave him a huge ovation when he was shown on the scoreboard. The popular former Red Sox second baseman (1978-84) waved.

He is being treated for cancer for the fifth time.

NICE PERFORMANCE

Nine-year-old Shea Braceland from Westfield, Mass., got a long and loud ovation when she completed a flawless rendition of the national anthem.

UP NEXT

Angels: Ricky Nolasco (2-9, 5.23 ERA) is set to face Dodgers LHP Rich Hill (4-3, 4.73) when the teams open a two-game series at Dodger Stadium on Monday. Nolasco has lost his last seven decisions.

Red Sox: LHP Chris Sale (9-3, 2.85) is in line to work against Minnesota RHP Jose Berrios (7-1, 2.67) when the teams open a four-game series in Fenway Monday. Sale leads the majors with 146 strikeouts.