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.