By Sean McAdam
CSNNE.com Red Sox Insider Follow @sean_mcadam
A year ago, Josh Beckett had one win against the New York Yankees and a bloated 10.04 ERA against them in five starts.
Not so incidentally, the Yankees finished in a tie for first place in the American League East while the Red Sox lagged behind in third place, far from the playoff picture.
This season, Beckett is 4-0 in five starts against the Yankees with a tidy 2.12 ERA.
No so incidentally, the Red Sox have the best record in the American League, and as September dawns, are virtually assured of reaching the post-season.
Sensing a pattern here?
When Beckett gets blown up against the Sox' main rival, the Red Sox stumble. When he pitches well against them, they thrive.
Four of Beckett's wins this season have come against the Yankees, making him the first Red Sox pitcher since Al Nipper in 1987 to beat them four times in the same season.
On Wednesday night, Beckett had his difficulties. In the sixth inning alone, with the Red Sox leading 4-1, Beckett allowed four runs -- or, more than he had in 27 innings against the Yankees before Wednesday night.
Outfielder Josh Reddick kicked a ball around the right field corner, allowing Eric Chavez to end up on third base, but Beckett could take most of the blame after hitting Mark Teixeira on the foot to open the inning, and, two batters later, walking Nick Swisher.
But that inning was the one slip-up. Other than the four-run fourth, he allowed just one other run and lugged the Sox through the seventh inning, where only Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon were needed from the bullpen.
The Sox are now 11-3 against the Yankees and that dominance helps to explain why they're not only ahead of New York in the standings, but also, ahead of everybody else.
And the starting pitcher in almost half (five) of those Red Sox wins? Beckett.
Jon Lester is essentially repeating the season he had a year ago. So, too, for better or worse, is John Lackey. Daisuke Matsuzaka did little before being shelved for the year.
The X factor, then, is Beckett. Although he's excluded from the team's MVP debate, the case could be made that it is he who is most responsible for their turnaround from a year ago.
''This is the guy we've relied on,'' said an appreciative Terry Francona. "We were hoping he'd come back with a vengeance and he has. He's been so consistent."
It helps that Beckett hasn't had any of the nagging injuries that have marked his sub-par years. Helps, too, that he enjoyed a healthy spring training, when, in other seasons, injuries and illness in March have set Beckett up for failure.
Beckett was determined to bounce back from a poor 2010 (6-6, 5.78). He dedicated himself to a more rigorous off-season training program and has yet to miss a start.
But ask Beckett what's been the difference between this season and last and he answers, in an almost zen-like state, that it's all about executing pitches.
"I think that's what separates good seasons from mediocre seasons or bad seasons," he said.
Understand that Beckett likes self-analysis about as much as a root canal. He loves competing. What he doesn't like is talking about competing.
And so, Beckett offers up some vague generalizations about his bounce-back season.
"I'm a different pitcher now than I was at any time last year," he said.
Of that, there can be no argument. The innings and strikeouts are up, the hits allowed and walks are down. With better run support -- incredibly, Beckett and Lackey are tied with the same number of wins, despite the fact that the former's ERA is less than half that of the the latter -- Beckett might have 16 or 17 wins and be on the outskirts of the Cy Young Award discussion.
The Red Sox still have a month to make a decision about their No. 3 starter in the playoffs. But there can be no debate about who will be their No. 1. And should the Sox and Yankees keep their date for the ALCS, it's clear who should start Game 1 for the Red Sox.
Because without an improved Josh Beckett, the Red Sox wouldn't be worried about their playoff rotation, only about getting there.