I did not think it was possible for Josh Beckett to make me more giddy than he already has throughout the regular season, but I must say that he is an altogether different beast in the postseason, which has touched off another wave of fascination with our reticent Texan ace for yours truly.
Now, the flamboyant tantrums which marked his early starts this season have given way to a quieter, more subdued Josh.
But this does not mean he has also become complacent. He has merely gone from being very! angry! to dead. fucking. serious.
Take, for instance, the moments just after the hulking Travis Hafner smashed a dinger into the visiting bullpen in the top of the first. The regular-season Josh might've let loose with an f-bomb or two in response. But when they showed Josh's face again, there wasn't even a change to his expression, let alone any fits happening. He squinted in at Varitek, shaking and nodding his head slightly in response to his catcher's signals, a tiny smirk starting at the corners of his mouth during one particularly long negotiation with his backstop. He chewed his gum slowly, contemplatively.
Otherwise, he registered virtually no reaction to Hafner's bomb, and wasted no time in blowing away Victor Martinez to end the inning.
"Beckett strikes out the side, but all he'll be thinking about when he goes to take a seat in the dugout is that home run for Travis Hafner," Joe Buck said. Personally, though, I thought nothing could be further from the truth.
Beckett appeared to have forgotten about Hafner's homer before the big man had even rounded third. And no matter what happened for the rest of his six innings, he kept his personal metronome set to that menacingly slow tempo, his posture laid back and loose, squinting his eyes as if to say, make my day.
Oh, and the next time he saw Hafner? Top of the fourth. One out, nobody on. Josh started him off with a pair of fastballs, one at 96 for a strike looking, and one at 94 which Hafner ripped foul into the seats along the first-base line.
0-2. Piece of cake, right?
He was squeezed a bit on the next call, another 95-mph bullet that might've been a bit outside. This is when Josh decided, judging from the radar gun, to stop fucking around. He reached back and went right after Hafner with 97 mph.
And Hafner fouled it off.
Here there was a momentary crack in Josh's facade. After falling off the mound, Beckett reacted to the foul with a hearty f-bomb, one that was even faintly audible in the background of the FOX broadcast.
Next he tried to drop the hammer, with a 79-mph curveball that plummeted out of the zone.
Hafner got his bat on it again.
Another 97-mph laser. Another foul ball.
Now officially dealing with his first problematic hitter of the postseason, Josh let loose with an 80 mph junk pitch that bounced in the dirt, sending Jason Varitek scrambling into foul territory on the third base side to recover it.
2-2 now. Another 80-mph clunker in the dirt. Hafner, who'dd begun in the hole 0-2, now stood there with a full count.
Josh shook once, nodded once. 96. Another foul.
He sighed. Tugged the brim of his cap. Went through his preliminary routine, shaking out his shoulder.
The next pitch, a changeup, got Hafner swinging from the heels, up and away. It appeared to be floating high in the zone, looking headed for a second spanking on the business end of Hafner's bat until the last moment when it darted about a foot downwards and plopped into Varitek's glove.
It had been an intense and evenly matched duel. But this time, Josh's point was proven.
He wasn't quite as sharp as in his start against the Angels, but given his earned-run total for the season has ballooned to, uh, two, up from zero, I think we can cut him a little slack, n'est pas? Despite a few more mistake pitches and a much shorter outing than last time, Beckett scattered hits, stranded runners and kept the damage to a minimum. He was in control at all times.
Well. There was just one other small exception. After Manny's Swan Lake impression in left in the top of the third, he let a single fist-pump fly, smiled brightly, and said, "Now that's a fucking catch!" (Though FOX blurred out his face during the f-bomb part, because they suck at life).
That smile, too. It was bright and earnest, and most of all, relaxed. Josh looked genuinely like he was just having a blast.
Again, I tell you, scary.
But Josh wasn't the only one who was at once locked-in and unshakably confident. In fact, that's how I'd describe every last member of the team, including the lineup as they settled in against Sabathia.
Sabathia looks like he could step on Dustin Pedroia, and went after Happy Scrappy from the get-go with sizzling heat. On the third pitch of his first at-bat, however, Pedroia made a statement of his own, rounding on another heater with all his might, smashing a rocket directly back into Sabathia's face even harder than Sabathia had hurled it plateward. At the very last instant, Sabathia blocked his face with his glove reflexively and averted what might have been tragedy.
Pedroia was out, but as with Josh in Hafner's second at-bat, the point was proven.
Kevin Youkilis showed a similar lack of respect for the high cheese from Sabathia, smashing a 96-mph offering into right center to set the table for Papi, who grooved a curveball right up the middle to bring up Manny.
Now, in retrospect, it seems like there was some tremendous scouting work done by the Red Sox prior to this game, and it was obviously clearly communicated up and down the lineup. From the very first at-bat, the Sox hitters were, to a man, hanging back patiently on Sabathia.
But once the game actually got under way, it was Manny who was the real catalyst. He had Sabathia pegged from the second he left the on-deck circle after Papi's hit, and it was his example that solidified the team's patient approach at the plate, one through nine.
Manny announced his presence in the ALCS by tying the game right then and there, waiting to see his pitch through two strikes and a ball with all the apparent urgency of someone waiting on a street corner for his ride to show up. Finally, it came, and Manny asked it what the holdup had been with another mighty crack of ash on leather, spinning his hands at light-speed through the zone and dropping the ball neatly into left field to drive Youkilis home.
The hit was impressive, and Manny's bat has been downright operatic this postseason with the walloping sounds it's sent ringing through the Fens, but his second at-bat, during which he did not make contact, might actually have been the better one.
Bases loaded in the bottom of the third. One out. Manny took two mighty, empty hacks at the first two offerings from Sabathia, putting himself down 0-2 right away.
And then, all of a sudden, a light bulb seemed to go on for him.
He stopped swinging.
Another hitter might have realized, walking back to the dugout after a third empty hack, that Sabathia was actually throwing junk up there and he might have done well to take, even down two strikes.
Manny realized it after two pitches, in time to stand there for four straight balls after those first two swinging strikes, walking in a run to take the lead and administering a blow from which Sabathia would never fully recover.
Taking his lead, the rest of the Sox hitters hung back even more for the rest of Sabathia's innings, double-daring him to throw strikes.
And lo and behold, Sabathia couldn't do it. Especially not in that third inning. The Sox would jump out to the 5-1 lead before the close of the frame.
All of a sudden, it's a different lineup out there than the one we watched tread water through most of the regular season. Consider this: in SI's AL Prospectus section this week, BP's Joe Sheehan had to go relatively far afield to find stats that differentiated the Sox from the Cleveland club, at least in terms of their regular-season records:
The Red Sox and the Indians not only had the same, major league-best record during the regular season (96-66) but also have many of the same qualities. Their respective aces, Josh Beckett and CC Sabathia, run I and IA in the American League Cy Young race. Each team has four quality starters backed by an outstanding bullpen. Each can put up runs in bunches thanks to a core of power hitters. Each is peaking in the postseason.
Upon deeper inspection, though, the Red Sox have several small edges. Their offense was significantly better when it came to Equivalent Average (EqA), .270 to .261 (EqA incorporates numerous offensive variable, including walks, total bases and stolen bases, and considers such factors as a team's home park and league.) Boston's defense converted 71.2% of balls put in play by opponents into outs, as opposed to Cleveland's 69.3%; that amounts to turning one more hit per game into an out, a difference that can be decisive...
Up until that second at-bat from Manny, that's how these teams looked: deadlocked. Differences of a single percentage point in one fielding statistic or another. A decimal-point difference in EqA. And so on.
By the time the third inning drew to a close, though, the Sox, like Josh, were showing another gear. They were becoming an altogether different beast, and a relaxed, deadly focused, patient one at that.
Now, look. Far be it from me to get carried away after just one game. Cleveland is a very, very good team this year and there's still plenty of baseball left to play. Fausto Carmona will not be a picnic tonight, and I still think Sheehan's conclusion that "the only surprising result would be a short series," is probably true.
But for now, it's time to savor another stellar postseason performance from the Local Nine. For today, up until 8 pm ET, there's no reason for Boston not to hold its head up high.
P.S. While the sound of Joe Buck's voice is like the sound of a drill to someone with dentophobia, because I know it means Tim McCarver's coming, I have to say the uptick in production quality between the TBS broadcasts and FOX has been startling. At least FOX knows how to mic up a postseason stadium, for crying out loud. And I at least know what kind of inanity to expect with FOX at this point, and how to prepare for it.