Once again, Josh Beckett was a creature of nasty majesty during yesterday's day game with the Twins. He's now put together back-to-back starts of the take-no-prisoners quality we've needed at the top of our rotation, but that he hasn't quite been able to deliver before now.
Yesterday also saw the return of "Ornery Bastard" Josh Beckett. He has generally toned down his fist-pumping, screaming and swearing since first putting on a Boston uniform, but yesterday some questionable ball / strike calls on the outside pitch had him boiling by the bottom of the seventh inning. When he's on, he needs to paint the corners, and he was getting the inside paint all night. But outside was a different story - at best, the calls seemed inconsistent. I didn't see any strong evidence that Beckett's opponent was getting preferential treatment there, but I'm not sure that was even a factor in Beckett's mind.
Meanwhile, yesterday's home plate umpire, Todd Tichenor, who has called 81 games since his MLB debut in 2007 - and just 17 behind the plate - was coming into that bottom of the seventh fresh from a traumatic run-in with Twins catcher Mike Redmond. Tichenor had called Jeff Bailey safe on a bang-bang play at home; it was a play close enough that, even from slow-motion replays, which call you'll make really depends on which team you're rooting for. I can see how it could be construed that Bailey got his hand on the plate ahead of the tag, but if so, it was a split-second before the tag and not something I'd swear to in court.
Redmond, meanwhile, had a strong dissenting opinon after Tichenor's verdict, and immediately tore off his mask, hunkered down into Tichenor's face and began to scream, his face growing red. In how many other jobs is having a nearly six-foot, 200-pound major league athlete screaming into your face an occupational hazard? The young umpire was clearly rattled long before Josh Beckett decided to give him another ration of grief.
So when Beckett threw a borderline pitch on the outside corner to Brendan Harris, and Tichenor didn't call it, lit match met tinder in the form of a hollered curse from Beckett on the mound. The echoey Metrodome amplified the sounds of the field - from what I could make out on TiVo, it seemed like a GD from Beckett, rather than his more typical MF. He gloved the return throw from Varitek with a furious snap of his glove, but overall, it wasn't quite as obscene a display as it could've been.
But like I said, Tichenor was rattled to begin with. It was even harder to make out what Tichenor said back, if anything, to Beckett, but his body language immediately stiffened as he looked in Beckett's direction, and that's when Varitek jumped up, the better to fall on the grenade. Varitek, speaking directly into the wild-eyed umpire's face, appeared to be pointing at something, but it's hard to tell at what. The umpire tossed Varitek just before Francona could get there, hobbling along at full speed on his creaky knees, to try to intervene.
What followed was a strangely comical scene in which Tichenor whirled a full 360 degrees in ejecting Francona, and the older manager stood several feet away and just watched the grandiose gesture, nonplussed. Tichenor seemed surprised not to find Francona in his face when he turned around, and stood there awkwardly for a moment, while Francona just sized him up with a withering once-over and a clearly lip-readable "What the f is wrong with you!?" Well-played by Tito.
And that was that. Beckett admitted it was his fault after the game. Having watched the highlights and postgame interviews and the seventh inning in slow motion, I think it's safe to say that Varitek made a split-second decision that it would be better for him to be run from the game than Beckett, and then took the ejection for the team.
Varitek's work had already been done for the day anyway - who would have thought, ever, that we'd see the day where Varitek hits back-to-back bombs and David Ortiz coming to the plate is an automatic 'inning over'?
Varitek's resurgence this year is nothing short of remarkable - for example, he hasn't hit two home runs in a game right-handed since 2004. In part this has been credited to a change in his hitting approach, but I also think not being bedridden with a severe illness followed immediately by getting divorced may also be helping.
We're not supposed to acknowledge those 'excuses', and usually this is where someone points out how much money ballplayers make, as if that's capable of making them something other than human. Also, predictably, this is usually when someone raises the specter of PEDs, apparently because if it involves any hitter changing in any way, then it must be because because he's either juicing now, or because he's now off the juice. Either way, any change in success at the plate = juice as far as some people seem to be concerned, these days.
In any event, as valuable as Varitek was yesterday, he was probably right in his choice of whose ejection could better be tolerated by the team at that moment. The Red Sox have been starved for pitching performances like Beckett's last two outings - it was crucial that he stay in and get the win this time.
And get it he did, in breathtaking fashion. He had the curveball and that twisting two-seam fastball in spades. Particularly the latter, with its bending, sidewinding motion, which combined with Beckett's impeccable control over location, made him virtually unhittable last night. Even if his ten-cent head sometimes makes things more complicated than they strictly have to be, if you can reduce him to just those innately fluid pitching skills, his million-dollar arm can be well worth the price of admission.