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Red Sox fans don’t recognize the guy wearing Josh Beckett’s number 19 jersey these days. So far this year, he hasn’t resembled the pitcher who saved the Sox’s season when they were down 3-1 to Cleveland in the 2007 ALCS. This isn’t the guy we look forward to watching when his turn in the rotation comes up every week. And, we’re hoping, this Josh Beckett isn’t the guy the Red Sox just agreed to pay $68 million just before he started pitching like he belongs on the bench.
One big worry is that all the hard-work, high pitch counts, and dominance on the mound was just an effort to earn that four-year extension he was given as the season opened. Previous accounts of players deciding to cruise through the season and collect their giant pay-checks (did someone say Manny?) have made Boston fans a little paranoid about the effort their teams’ players are putting out. Beckett’s season, so far, has been making some worry that he has cashed in and has lost that sense of urgency that might have been bringing out his dominance.
The numbers themselves don’t deserve $68 million: 1-1 with a 7.46 ERA and 16 walks after seven starts. We were disappointed in the way he pitched on opening night. Beckett had three walks, gave up five earned runs and had only one strikeout in four and two-thirds innings on opening night against the Yankees, of all teams. But we let it slide when a late-game comeback bailed him out. We were annoyed when he needed the ancient Jason Varitek to start in place of Victor Martinez’s big bat because Beckett, for some reason, seemed lost without ‘Tek. But we relaxed when the veteran catcher remembered how to hit homeruns, and justified the change when we noticed the embarrassing number of steals Martinez was letting up from behind the plate.
But now it’s May, and the Sox’s number one starter recently let the Yankees run wild in Fenway again, giving up nine earned runs in five and a third innings while allowing another three walks. Since then, Beckett’s next scheduled start has been pushed back from Wednesday against Toronto, in which Tim Wakefield got the loss. The big price tag on the so-far unproductive Josh Beckett has a lot of people in Boston biting their nails.
But don’t count him out this early in the season. Beckett has struggled in a few starts, including the back-to-back beatings he received from Texas and Toronto, namely the eight runs the Blue Jays racked up on him in three innings. But at the same time he has also shown some bright spots that have been overshadowed by his faults this year.
On April 16th Beckett had eight K’s in a seven inning shut-out against the Rays, currently regarded as one of the best teams in the league. In his second start he got his first win, holding the lowly Royals to three runs in seven innings. And, just one start before his most recent dismantling by the Yankees, he had a six strikeout game in Baltimore in which he held the O’s to only two runs and zero walks in seven innings.
Even in the most recent embarrassment of a Yankee game he showed flashes of his old self. He matched his season-high eight strikeouts in the five and a third innings he pitched before he got shelled. And, even though he got the loss, his personal catcher Jason Varitek pointed out to the Boston Globe that, before the 6th inning, “there were periods of that game where I’ve never seen him throw the ball so good, and that’s a good sign.’’
So, should we be panicking yet?
Ask the Detroit Tigers, who watched their ace and a 2009 American League Cy Young contender struggle to open this season. Justin Verlander spent most of April letting his team down, going 1-2 in his first four starts with a 6.95 ERA with nine walks and only 19 strikeouts. After that, he went 2-1 with 23 strikeouts and only seven walks in just three starts, bringing his ERA down to a reasonable 4.50.
Or look to see if the Chicago White Sox panicked over Jake Peavy’s slow start to 2010. The White Sox gave up four pitching prospects last year to acquire the 2007 NL Cy Young award winner, agreeing to take up his 2010 salary of $15 million that goes up to $17 million by 2012. He showed no signs of hope in April, going 0-2 with only 22 K’s, 20 walks, and an ERA of 7.85. Since then, he has gone 2-0 with 17 strikeouts and only one walk in just two starts in the month of May.
The reason these two comeback stories give hope to the return of the Josh Beckett we know and love is that all three pitchers had similar control problems. Verlander started the season with nine walks in four starts; Peavy with 20 walks in his first five; and Beckett with 16 in his first seven. Verlander and Peavy, just like Beckett, have histories of a dominant presence with high pitch counts and commanding control. A good sign for Sox fans is that both of them have been able to return to their usual form after having equally miserable starts to their seasons. Who’s to say that Beckett can’t do the same? Varitek believes so, considering he told the Boston Globe that he believes he can help get him out of his slump. The catcher showed some optimism on the situation when, talking about the few positive signs he saw in Beckett’s performance against the Yankees, he said that “it’s more encouraging to me because it’s there.” The catcher has secret plans to get Beckett back in shape, telling Globe reporters: “I have some behind-the-scenes ideas that I won’t display.’’
And, as far as the contract that the Red Sox agreed to with their ace, a month and a half into a new contract is way too early to regret paying a player with Beckett’s capabilities. The same could be said about regretting the total of $103.11 million spent on Daisuke Matsuzaka, half of which was paid just to be able to discuss the so-far undeserved $52 million contract they eventually gave to a guy who never pitched in the United States. And Epstein didn’t seem to show any early regret for dishing out a 4-year, $36 million deal to allow Julio Lugo to commit 51 errors in a little more than two seasons with the team.
So maybe there’s still hope for the guy. Maybe the delayed starts are a good sign. If Varitek claims he has found the problem, the extra days off could be put toward fixing it. My prediction: he will take a little time off, if even for just one start, and once he completes just one dominant outing he will find his stride again.
But if we’re still having this conversation in a month, then we should really be worried. For now though, there is still hope that we will see the real Josh Beckett back on the mound, and hopefully we’ll be glad we paid him to be there.