BOSTON When Josh Beckett didn't come back for the seventh inning Thursday night with a 2-1 lead, despite throwing just 83 pitches, alarm bells went off in Red Sox Nation.
After losing two starting pitchers (John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka) to the disabled list already this week, the Sox couldn't afford to lose Beckett. Especially considering the way he had been pitching of late.
It wasn't an injury, however. Beckett had tightness in his neck, and the Sox played it cautiously by removing him from the game.
His neck got stiff and thats not something to play around with, said manager Terry Francona. Especially on the side with his throwing shoulder . . . He got stiff and he was getting stiffer and thats not something to mess around with.
Yeah, it was tough to get loose, Beckett said. I battled through the first few innings. I actually went down to the batting cage behind the dugout in the third and the fifth and was throwing in between innings because I was just trying to get loose. It never would loosen up. I think it was just a little muscle spasm in there. I dont think its anything serious at all, but we want to be cautious, especially in the situation were in right now with starters.
Beckett said he doesnt expect to need treatment on his neck, just some muscle relaxers and stuff like that. Were just trying to calm it down. I think everythings fine.
Through six innings, Beckett gave up one run on five hits and two walks with three strikeouts, lowering his ERA from 1.75 already an American League-best to 1.73. The run he gave up to the Tigers, in the second inning, snapped his career-best streak of 19 13 scoreless innings.
I got great defense is what I had, he said. There was a lot of balls I was trying to go away with lefties and try to drag some of them back to the middle of the plate. Right fielder J.D Drew, it was a darn track meet out there for him. I know thats tough with the turf the way it is.
Theyre a good lineup. You take outs however you can get them. I felt like they were extra aggressive and I felt like sometimes that played into my deal. Maybe it was just the hitters that came up in the situations but I got some ground balls when I needed to get some ground balls. J.D. was really busy out there.
Until he left the game, Beckett matched Tigers ace Justin Verlander pitch for pitch. Verlander went eight innings, allowing three runs on six hits, no walks, and nine strikeouts.
I try not to put too much emphasis on who the other pitcher is, especially in the American League where I dont have to hit against him, Beckett said. If I had to hit against him, it wouldnt be fun at all. It would be fun for him, but it wouldnt be fun for me. But I thought our guys, they did a good job. I thought they actually got his pitch count up there but with him being who he is, he gets to go back out there for the seventh and eighth inning.
For Beckett, it was his fifth no-decision in nine starts this season. He has just one decision a win in New York on May 14 in his last six starts. He has not lost since his first start of the year, in Cleveland on April 5. Six of his nine starts this season are quality starts.
He was okay, said catcher Jason Varitek. It was a battle for him today but he was strong. He was probably as strong as hes been on the mound in quite a while. It was just a fight for him getting the ball east and west. And he just battled with one run in six innings is pretty good.
But he received just two runs of support Thursday, the sixth time this season that he has received two or fewer runs of support while he was in the game.
Although Daniel Bard allowed the Tigers to tie the game on back-to-back home runs by Brennan Boesch and Miguel Cabrera in the eighth, the Sox offense pulled out the walkoff win. Jonathan Papelbon earned the W with a scoreless ninth, getting out of a bases-loaded one-out jam with two strikeouts, including Miguel Cabrera, swinging at a 97-mph fastball, for the final out.
Its some of the most electric stuff that you see, Beckett said of Papelbons ninth inning. Nobody throws a fastball like that, with the explosions at the end.
The six straight wins mark the Sox longest win streak since last June 1520.
None of the four starters in the brief four-game series -- Clay Buchholz and Beckett for the Sox, Phil Coke and Verlander for the Tigers -- earned a decision in the brief four-game series, despite pitching a combined total of 28 innings and giving up only four earned runs. Both games were decided in the Red Sox final at-bats, with the Sox winning both.
Kevin Youkilis went 1-for-3, extending his hit streak to seven games. He's batting .346 (9-for-26) in that span.
David Ortiz went 3-for-4, his 13th multihit game of the season. His seventh-inning home run off Verlander was his eighth of the season, fourth in his last eight games, and sixth in 15 games, good for second on the Sox.
The back-to-back home runs Bard allowed to Boesch and Cabrera in the eighth marked just the second time in his career he has given up two home runs in one game. He also allowed back-to-back homers on Aug. 9, 2009, to Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira in Yankee Stadium.
Francona said Matsuzaka,placed on the DL with a right elbow sprain, has not yet had a secondopinion,but everythingsbeen sent to his representatives agentScott Boras and all that type ofstuff.
Francona wasasked if Papelbons fastball is reminiscent of the one hethrew 2007 and 2008. Papelbon had 37 and 41 saves, respectively inthose seasons, with ERAs of 1.85 and 2.34.
I dontthink I disagree with that, Francona said. I guess I look more at hiscommand. I guess there were times last year when he didnt quite knowwhere it was going and you had to reel him back in. I think hes gotgood finish on it but I think his locations been reallygood.
I think Pap competes about as good asanybody. The bigger the moment Paps got a pretty good way ofslowing things down. I know he sort of beats to his own tune but whenthe games on the line its not going to speed up on him. I haventseen him . . . how do you call a carousel or a tilt-a-whirl this way andthat way. I've seen him not coming off the ball. Last year a lot of hisappearances you'd see him come in and go ball one, ball two, ball threewith a fastball up on the arm side. I haven't seen that a lot this yearand thatsgood.
Francona spent one season with the Red Sox' next opponent, the Cubs, in1986, appearing in 86 games as a firstbasemanoutfielder.
It wasnt very good, he said.I always seemed like I hit at a quarter-to-six as a pinch-hitter, back when the Cubs played mostly day games. It would be about theeighth inning, and there was always shadows. I lived north of the cityso I fought the traffic in, fought the traffic home and didn't get verymany hits.
Its a cool ballpark, though. I thinkback then it seemed like the worse we played, the more they liked theloveable Cubs. I havent been there much lately, but Im not sure thatfeeling is still quite there as much. I think they're looking to win.Harry Caray that was enough. People enjoyed a home game and sittingin the bleachers that was enough. I dont know if it isanymore.
Asked to compare the two ancient ballparks,Fenway and Wrigley, Francona chose his currenthome.
I always like Fenway a little better. Thedugouts at Wrigley are hard to watch a game. You're really stuck inthere really hard. I love Wrigley. I think all the new ballparks aretrying to get the feeling of Fenway and Wrigley, with just the newamenities. But I always liked Fenwaybetter.
Former Mass. Gove Paul Cellucci, who has been diagnosed with ALS, waspart of the pregame ceremony in recognition of a fundraising initiativewith UMass Medical School(www.UMassALS.com).
The Red Sox and Cubs will wear replica 1918 uniforms in Saturdays game, commemorating the last time the Cubs visitedFenway for the 1918 World Series.
Maureen Mullen is on Twitter athttp:twitter.commaureenamullen