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.

Quotes, notes and stars: Barnes takes the blame in loss

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Quotes, notes and stars: Barnes takes the blame in loss

BOSTON -- Quotes, notes and stars from the Red Sox’ 10-4 loss to the Kansas City Royals:

QUOTES

“That one’s one me. I’ve got to do a better job of securing that lead and getting out of that inning.” - Matt Barnes on giving up the lead.

“When he tries to go down and away to right-handers, the ball’s leaking back to the middle a bit. That was the case against [Lorenzo] Cain [and Raul] Mondesi in this case tonight. It’s on the plate first pitch, bases loaded he’s trying to get a strike to get ahead. But in general, Barnes has pitched to the edge at times and missed, and then when he’s on the plate it’s probably found the middle of the plate a bit too much.” - John Farrell on Barnes’ outing.

“I think everybody in that bullpen believes in every single person down there.” - Barnes said on the bullpen.

“It was good, everything was good . . . Just the fastball command was a little out of control.” - Eduardo Rodriguez on his left hamstring and his performance.

 

NOTES

* David Ortiz launched his 31st home run of the season, which also marked the 534th of his career, tying Jimmie Foxx for 18th on the all-time home run chart.

* Mookie Betts recorded his Major League-leading 56th multi-hit game of the season.

* Jackie Bradley Jr. finished 1-for-2, bumping his average to .317 (77-for-243) at Fenway this season.

* The Red Sox grounded into four double plays, tying their season high on 6/12 against Minnesota.

* Matt Barnes’ ERA jumped from 3.68 before Sunday’s game to 4.45 after giving up 5 runs without recording an out.

 

STARS

1) Raul Mondesi

Mondesi’s bases-clearing triple in the sixth opened the floodgates and gave Kansas City the lead they would continue to build off.

2) Matt Strahm

 Strahm relieved Yordano Ventura after his short 4 and 1/3-inning outing. He held the Red Sox scoreless through 2.2 innings to earn his second win of the season.

3) Salvador Perez

Perez launched his sixth home run in his last eight games against Boston. He became the Royal to homer in three-straight games at Fenway since Billy Butler did in 2011.

First impressions: Red Sox implode in 6th inning, lose to Royals, 10-4

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First impressions: Red Sox implode in 6th inning, lose to Royals, 10-4

BOSTON -- First impressions from the Red Sox' 10-4 loss to the Kansas City Royals:

 

Boston’s bullpen continues to be a roll of the dice every night.

This time Matt Barnes was the latest reliever to suffer from the plague that’s filled this bullpen all season.

Part of it was bad luck on two perfectly placed balls, the other part was Raul Mondesi lacing a triple, and Lorenzo Cain smacking a single.

Robbie Ross was better, but not by much.

No lead seems safe in the hands of any Boston reliever.

 

David Ortiz keeps putting himself in the same breath as legendary Hall of Famers.

This time it was former Red Sox great Jimmie Foxx, who Ortiz is now tied with at 534 home runs, 18th all time.

Early in the season he’d match a legendary player every so often, it was impressive. Now it’s almost to be expected every night he plays.

Next on the all-time home run list is Yankee Legend Mickey Mantle with 536.

 

The bottom of the order continues to play an important role in Boston’s run production.

Chris Young got things started in the fifth, then Sandy Leon and Jackie Bradley Jr. kept it rolling so both Brock Holt and Xander Bogaerts could cash in all three runners.

Moving JBJ back to ninth Saturday proved to be a good move, and moving Leon back down with his recent scuffles seems to be the best move, too.

Not only can they knock each other in any given instance, but they also put Dustin Pedroia (or Holt) and Bogaerts in run-producing situations, as opposed to just setting the table.

 

Chris Young’s hamstring shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

He was able to leg out the soft grounder to third base in the first inning.

Young has lost a step or two with age, but it seemed like he opened it up on the play.

Hopefully that’s a sign of the end of the injuries in left field this season.

 

Junichi Tazawa looked strong.

That’s more so an observation of his fastball reaching 94 mph.

Tazawa has a long way to go before he’s back to where he was, but the righty took a step in the right direction Sunday night. He retired Kansas City’s 2-3-4 hitters in his first inning and working past a leadoff single in his second inning of work.