As baseball tries to emerge from its era of suspicion, Texas-bred Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett--with the game's most feared right arm--has become the perfect antidote.
More about Josh Beckett
"I throw the damn thing as hard as I can"
Each winter, before he heads to Red Sox training camp in Fort Myers, Fla., Josh Beckett spends about a dozen nights in a courtside seat at San Antonio's AT&T Center. He admires everything about the San Antonio Spurs, the NBA's reigning champions. As he watches veteran forward Robert Horry—who owns six championship rings and is known as Big Shot Rob for draining some of the coldest three-point shots in playoff history—he sees a little bit of himself. "I was a Houston Rockets fan growing up, and I followed Robert's whole career, all those rings he's won," Beckett says. "The biggest thing with him is, he was never scared to be The Guy. He would have been able to deal with missing some of those shots. He would never have shied away from it when the coach said, 'Hey, we want you to have the ball.'"
In baseball, Beckett is unquestionably The Guy. In fact, call him Big Game Beckett. He's the game's best pitcher, the Ace of Aces, the ultimate stopper. In 2007, the 27- year-old right-hander went 20-7, and was the game's only 20-game winner one season after no pitcher was able to reach that lofty plateau. But that was mere regularseason magic. You don't earn nicknames for games won in the summer. There's no Mr. July. Fall is when baseball's legends are made and when Beckett shines. Last season, he won two games in the American League Championship series, including Game 5, which the Sox entered trailing the Cleveland Indians in the bestof- seven series, three games to one. With a Cleveland crowd howling, starved for its first trip to the World Series since 1997, he bested 2007 American League Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia with a 5-hit, 8-inning gem.
Then in the 2007 World Series, against the Colorado Rockies, who'd swept two prior opponents in the postseason, he unleashed an overpowering, muscle-flexing performance in Game 1. His first 18 pitches were 94- to 97-mile-per-hour fastballs, and he struck out the side in the first inning, providing the impetus for the Red Sox' four-game sweep, making Boston baseball's world champions for the second time in three years.
How could a Game 1 victory have affected the entire series when the Rockies had earned an 8-day layoff? "Just trying to get your timing back is tough, let alone against Beckett," said Rockies outfielder Matt Holliday, the National League Most Valuable Player runner-up last season. "He is tough. You have to be sharp to score much against him. He set the tone [in Game 1]. With that layoff and facing him, it was not a good combination."
"I definitely wanted to test them after that layoff and set the tone," Beckett recalls. "The whole game of baseball is predicated on the fastball, whether it be hitting or pitching."
Not that Beckett's macho, meat-and potatoes approach is a surprise. In 2003, he earned World Series MVP honors with two commanding performances, the second on just three days' rest, to help the upstart Florida Marlins beat the formidable New York Yankees four games to two. In a Game 3 loss he held the Yankees' vaunted Murderers' Row lineup to just one run in seven innings, the lone score coming on a bases-loaded walk. But it was Game 6 when Beckett and his trademark goatee dazzled America. Pitching against Andy Pettitte, Beckett threw a complete-game shutout at Yankee Stadium to defeat the Bombers, 2-0. It was the first final game, complete game doughnut in the World Series since Minnesota Twins ace Jack Morris did it in 1991.
What makes Beckett so tough in big games? His secret is surprising, yet it is no secret at all. "It's easy," he says. "If you've got everything going for you. And those kinds of games, when your focus has to come all together, those are the times when you are apt to do well.
"It doesn't hurt when I'm usually throwing 94 to 97 miles an hour. The reaction time for the hitter is still the same, except he's got a little more riding on each pitch. So I think there are two different types of pressure, as far as the pressure to execute a pitch and the pressure to execute hitting that pitch. It's in favor of the pitcher, to me. They have such a short amount of time to make up their mind whether or not they're going to swing at the pitch. Maybe that little extra millisecond gives me an advantage.
"That's why I say that when you've got everything going it's easy."
Beckett has yet to win a Cy Young Award. He was runner-up to Sabathia in last season's voting. Some experts insist that while Sabathia was a worthy winner, Beckett is the guy you'd want on the mound in Game 7. "Right now he's in the top two in baseball," said Mel Didier, a scout for 56 years, for the Dodgers, Expos, Diamondbacks, and, most recently, the Texas Rangers. "He may be the very top. [Johan] Santana is one, but Beckett is right there with him."
Beckett prefers to judge himself by the confidence his teammates have when he takes the mound. "I put in all these hours of work to try and be as successful as possible," he says, "but not necessarily to get rave reviews like that. The biggest compliment I've ever had is when my team tells me that when I've got to go out there and pitch they feel like they're going to win that day.
"That's always been something I've strived to do: Make my teammates feel so confident that they would say stuff like that. Last year they really were."
Beckett grew up in Spring, Texas, about 25 miles due north of Houston, where Roger Clemens makes his off-season home. Like all hard-throwing Texas teenagers, he idolized Clemens, who starred at the University of Texas before heading to the majors, as well as an older Texas-born fireballer, Nolan Ryan. "I think Clemens had a little more power to him back then, with his four-seamers," he said.
Due to their geographic proximity, as well as Beckett's similarly commanding presence on the mound, Clemens is the pitcher with whom he is most often compared— a comparison of which Beckett is extremely proud. Don't even think about bringing up the recent firestorm over allegations of steroid use by Clemens after the iconic pitcher's name was included in the infamous Mitchell Report outlining the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Such talk is not for boyhood icons. Only pitching, which Beckett takes on like he's staring you down from 60 feet, six inches away. "Until somebody makes an adjustment I'm not changing," he says. "I'm going to throw you fastballs until you adjust, and then I'm going to throw you a split [split-fingered fastball]."
His strategy has always worked in the biggest of games for baseball's best big game pitcher. Why change now?