I would never wish injury on any player, but it was a stroke of luck for the Sox tonight that Mike Piazza had to leave the game.
Before Mike Lowell accidentally rolled over his shoulder following a bang-bang play at third in the top of the sixth, it was Piazza who'd touched off every A's rally, breaking up Beckett's perfect game in the top of the fifth and forcing him into the stretch for the first time all night, throwing off his control just enough to crack open the door for the A's offense. Prior to tonight, Piazza was 2 for 12 against Beckett; seems he's using his extra time as a DH wisely.
Again in the sixth, Piazza was the catalyst, with a two-out hit against Beckett just when he was threatening to strand Stewart at first. Piazza was followed by Dan Johnson, who also singled, sending Stewart home.
He was replaced by Nick Swisher, whose hobbled hamstring prevented him from beating out a double play in the top of the eighth against Okajima. Who knows what we might be talking about if a healthy and hot Piazza had been at the plate in that instance.
Luckily, the Sox had not one but two catalysts of their own: Alex Cora and Coco Crisp. Twice the left-handed Cora made crucial contact off left-handed pitchers; his at-bat against the lefty sidewinder Jay Marshall was the turning point of the game. With the Sox down a run, he cued a grounder to the shortstop on the right side of second base, in perfect position to score Jason Varitek for the tying run. (Coco would also contribute, scoring the go-ahead run on the next play, a sac fly by Julio Lugo. He'd hit his second double that inning to get on base.) Cora's next at bat against Embree resulted in a two-strike hit to left to score Mike Lowell in the bottom of the next inning for an insurance run.
Coco looked nice at the plate, 2 for 4, both doubles, but it was his defense that really electrified the ballpark tonight. In the top of the ninth behind Mike Timlin, Coco came through on a Kendall liner that was sinking fast, diving in a blur of billowing jersey onto the grass with his arm outstretched, throwing his left shoulder completely to the mercy of gravity. It was his second circus catch in as many nights at Fenway. (Oddly enough, it was also Mike Timlin on the mound when Coco made probably the best catch I've ever seen and certainly the best I've ever seen live, last June.)
Anybody feel like heckling him now?
Anyway. There are so many subtleties to this game it's hard to catalog them all. The king of those details, in the end, was Beckett, who ran into rough patches, but also had three of the most tremendous strikeouts in recent memory--two on Crosby and Putnam in the top of the fifth and one on his final batter, Ellis, in the top of the 7th.
Crosby and Putnam were both remarkable because the curve was the out-pitch for both of them, both times a textbook hook that sent them swinging for the fences and coming up empty. Ellis, meanwhile, who'd been Beckett's personal plaything all night, was the final hitter Beckett faced in the 7th, and he obligingly helped send Beckett off in grand fashion with a punchout that made me think Dennis Eckersley was going to choke on his own saliva ranting about it after the game. It was that good.
That final humiliation took just three masterful strokes--a 97 mile-per-hour fastball right up the gut, a 79 mile-per-hour curveball that broke from Ellis's nose to his toes as he swung and missed, and another nasty heater just off the middle of the plate, inside (no gun reading from NESN on that one, unfortunately). There are some strikeouts where the umpire's body language suggests almost a joy in ringing a batter up after pitches like that, and this was one of them--a resounding K if there ever was one.
And yet the line between a salivating Eckersley and the first loss of the season is a fine one. In that top of the fifth it was easy to see it all coming apart as Beckett struggled--in his postgame press conference he added that he'd caught his spike earlier on and was beginning to stiffen up at that point, in addition to having to make the adjustment to pitch from the stretch. Even the two beautiful Ks couldn't preserve the shutout, as Kendall cleared the bases with a hit to center to tie the game in the very next at-bat. In all, that inning, Beckett threw 24 effective pitches and 3 less-than-effective (but not horrible) pitches, but all three of them were pounded for hits and runs. That's what it means to play at this level, I guess.
And so, it can't last forever. I can't wait to see how far Beckett will take his perfect start, but eventually, one of these rallies will stick. It is inevitable.
In a way, I think it's that futility that makes me find pitching and pitchers so compelling. Like all romantic endeavors, the goal is a perfection that cannot ever be won. The best of the best, though, can touch it, even hold it for a while. And that's what Josh Beckett is showing us now.
P.S. I'm sad to report that while I'm utterly in love with him as a pitcher, I still find Beckett a deeply confusing enigma in a hemp necklace off the field. You could ask him to read the phone book and it would probably have about as much inflection as he had describing his start tonight at the postgame press conference. Even the reporters' baiting questions about being in the company of Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens with a 6-0 start failed to elicit even a blink. It's like he's reading off a TelePrompter. And why in the name of God did he have sunglasses clipped to his shirt collar? It's 11 o'clock at night, for Chrissakes. Weirdo.