Beckett’s outing against Yankees provides much-needed hope

It was truly unexpected.

If anyone tells you they “expected” Josh Beckett to give the Red Sox the kind of performance he gave them against the Yankees Sunday night, then they are telling a tall tale (be prepared for a story about a 65-lb bass they caught at the local fishing hole last year).

It was unexpected because the native of Spring, TX, went 6-6, with a 5.78 ERA and 1.535 WHIP, in 21 starts last season … it was shocking because he went 1-2, with a 10.04 ERA and 2.038 WHIP, against the NY Yankees last year (allowing 40 hits in just 26 innings pitched).

It was the kind of outing Red Sox Nation has been hoping he would produce for nearly two years, but it certainly wasn’t something that anyone on God’s good Earth could have expected.

With the Red Sox offense sputtering and Yankees ace CC Sabathia on the bump for the club’s arch-rivals, it seemed more appropriate to hope for an off-night by CC Sabathia than a stellar performance from Beckett.

There was a glimmer of hope right from the get-go. The right-hander’s fastball, which averaged 93 mph last season, repeatedly popped catcher Jason Varitek‘s glove at 94-95 mph throughout the first inning. And whereas he induced ground balls at a 31.3% clip in his first start of 2011 – substantially below his career mark of 44.5% – last night he had Yankee hitters beating the baseball into the ground. And as I have written in the past, I haven’t seen many ground balls hit for home runs … last year, he surrendered 20 HR in just 127.2 innings pitched.

We have grown accustomed to seeing Beckett “pitching scared” over the last season-and-a-half (give or take) — nibbling, getting behind in counts and then getting pounded by the opposition. He appeared to had lost confidence in his fastball, in turn relying more on his off-speed pitches. In many respects, he had become something he had never been.

Last night, the first two pitches he threw were ruled balls. I immediately thought, “Here we go again!”, but it was the only time all evening I had any such thoughts. He threw strikes. The Yankees box score was populated with strikeouts and ground outs. He surrendered just two hits and issued one walk in nine innings pitched. He retired the last 14 batters he faced, five by strikeout and seven by ground out.

Yankees hitters put a grand total of four batted balls into the outfield against him Sunday.

Admittedly, it may be too early to declare that the old Josh Beckett is back, but he had not struck out at least 10 batters since July 27, 2009 … and he hadn’t held an opposing team scoreless for eight or more innings since July 12, 2009 ( a 6-0 shutout over KC).

At the very least, we can say the “old” Josh Beckett made a cameo appearance at Fenway Park last night. Whether or not he makes a recurring appearance in the 2011 baseball version of “That Championship Season” remains to be seen.

As for Sunday’s performance, Yankees SS Derek Jeter said, “He was probably as good today as we’ve seen him in quite some time. He’s always a challenge, but that’s as good as I’ve seen him since I don’t remember when.”

Hopefully we will see a lot more of that Josh Beckett this season … I’m sick of watching him pitch and wondering: “Who are you, and what have you done with the real Josh Beckett?”

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