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.

Drellich: Sale may be Red Sox' most electrifying pitcher since Pedro

Drellich: Sale may be Red Sox' most electrifying pitcher since Pedro

The newest lefty ace can succeed where David Price did not.

Chris Sale might be the most electrifying pitcher the Red Sox have had since Pedro Martinez.

Josh Beckett had his moments. Jon Lester was steadily excellent.

But the stuff Sale brings is a step above.

A spaghetti-limbed motion and a fast pace. The ability to throw any pitch in any count, something said of many pitchers, but noted here without exaggeration. A delivery that disguises each pitch as another until there’s no time to react.

MORE ON CHRIS SALE

There's been a lot of talk about how competitive Sale is. That's great.

Let's acknowledge how filthy he is before going crazy about the intangibles. He carves hitters better than he does jerseys.

Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has made some questionable moves, but he deserves some optimism here. Some early praise, even -- no matter how well Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech, the best prospects he gave the White Sox for Sale, are faring this spring.

Where Dombrowski failed with Price thus far, he may succeed immediately with Sale.

Yes, Sale's 10-strikeout performance against the Yankees on Tuesday night was just a spring training game. But he was dominant to the point that a Grapefruit League game was actually made interesting.

Must-watch, even.

“You guys saw,” Sale told reporters in Florida. “Just felt good.”

All three pitches were working for Sale, the fastball, slider and changeup, and the variants thereof.

“I've been working on my changeup a little bit more the last couple of outings,” Sale said. “My last time out it wasn't great, but just working on it in between starts, just throwing it on the flat ground, it's a pitch that doesn't take a whole lot of stress on your arm. So even when you're just playing catch, you can flip it around, work on grips, things like that.

"As far as my slider, I feel good about it. . . . Obviously when I'm throwing harder, I think it's a little bit flatter. When I take some off of it, not only do I have a little bit more control, but I think it has a little bit more depth. Plus, it kind of creates another pitch in there. It's like an in-between fastball-changeup type of thing. Anything to give them a different look or try to throw them off. That’s kind of the name of pitching."

American League Rookie of the Year runner-up Gary Sanchez was miles in front of the 2-and-2 changeup he swung over in the first inning. Matt Holliday was frozen by a slider at the belt on the inner half.

Chris Carter, he of 40-home run power, was beat by a 2-and-2 fastball an inning later, clearly thinking off speed and unable to decipher just what was coming in time.

Aaron Hicks tried to golf an 0-and-2 slider by flinging his bat into the stands, somewhere behind the third-base dugout.

That’s just the first two innings.

"He added his third pitch more this evening than five days ago, when it was more fastball-changeup," manager John Farrell said. "He had his breaking ball to both sides of the plate, and got underneath to some right-handed swings. And any time he needs to, he's got such good feel for the changeup to get him back in counts to give him a different look. He was impressive."

Opening Day at Fenway Park will be exciting. But Game No. 2, when Sale is to make his Sox debut, should bring the most intrigue.

Chris Sale dominant again in Red Sox' win vs. Yankees

Chris Sale dominant again in Red Sox' win vs. Yankees

By Pat Bradley, CSN Staff

Chris Sale was treating this like a regular season game, and delivered an excellent, midseason performance.

The Boston Red Sox got a taste Tuesday of the star pitcher they acquired last offseason, when Sale dominated the New York Yankees in a 4-2 spring training road win in Tampa, Florida.

Sale, who entered the game having thrown 63 of his 68 spring pitches for strikes (92%), continued to show off his incredible command, throwing 58 of his 86 pitches for strikes (67%) in the victory.

The 27-year-old struck out five of the first six Yankees he faced, and finished with an even 10 strikeouts on the night. He’s now struck out 20 batters to just one walk this spring.

"Obviously, anybody who knows anything about sports knows about Boston and New York," Sale said, via The Providence Journal’s Tim Britton. "Coming in here, playing against the Yankees, playing at their park in a night game, it gives it more of a regular-season feel. That's what we're here for. Anytime you can get that much closer to a regular-season game, the better off we're going to be."

His single blemish came on a 2-2 pitch to Yankees designated hitter and noted masher Matt Holliday, who sent the ball sailing to the opposite field for a two-run home run that at the time tied the score at 2.

Sale quickly regrouped, lining out Chris Carter to left field on his very next pitch to end his outing. His final line: two runs on four hits with 10 strikeouts and a hit batsman in six innings on 86 pitches.

That’s quite a debut to the rivalry, and something the Red Sox are well aware could become a regular thing.

“I don't want to say tonight is the norm,” began Red Sox manager John Farrell, via The Providence Journal, “but certainly he is very capable of doing that every time he walks to the mound.”

Sale wasn’t the only one strutting his stuff on Tuesday, though. Youngsters Marco Hernandez and Sam Travis continued to hit and were pivotal parts of a Red Sox offense that pounded out 13 hits.

After Mike Miller opened the scoring with a solo homer for Boston in the third inning, Travis kept things rolling a few batters later when his base hit scored Hernandez.

Travis was back at it again in the seventh inning, when his groundout scored Heiker Meneses for what proved to be the game-winning run.

Hernandez and Travis each finished 2-for-4, with Hernandez tripling (his fifth of the spring) and scoring a run and Travis driving in two runs of his own. They raised their spring averages to .422 and .351, respectively.

Every member of the starting lineup -- which did not feature regulars Mookie Betts, Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval or Xander Bogaerts -- recorded at least one hit, save for Jackie Bradley Jr., who went 0-for-3 with a walk and two strikeouts out of the cleanup spot.

Boston is back in action Thursday with a 1:05 p.m. start against the Pittsburgh Pirates.