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Beckett Aiming To Blister The Bigs

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Thursday, March 4, 2004



By Jayson Stark



JUPITER, Fla. -- When you've been where Josh Beckett has been, when you've done what Josh Beckett has done, life is never the same. How can it be?



When you're the man standing on the mound in Yankee Stadium in the last week in October, shutting out the mighty Yankees in the game that wins your team the World Series, you are no longer just another name in the Baseball Register.



And you never will be.



Even Josh Beckett has begun to understand that now.



"I was at a (Super Bowl) party over the winter, and some actors there actually wanted to meet me," Beckett laughs, the amazement still in his eyes. "I was actually kind of baffled by that. I was like: 'They want to meet me? I want to meet them.' "



Well, step right up and meet Josh Beckett, ladies and gentlemen. As real-life baseball stories go these days, this one is about as good as it gets.



In the rear-view mirror of the Marlins' 23-year-old phenom lies one amazing tale, about the guy with fewer career wins than Jason Simontacchi who had himself a Sandy Koufax October.




Josh Beckett was at his best in silencing the Yankees in Game 6 of the '03 World Series.



But off in the distance, stretching out there toward the horizon and beyond, is another tale -- a tale just as mesmerizing. Because if there is anything more fascinating than where Josh Beckett has been, it is where he goes from here.



Is he about to turn into Bob Gibson -- or Jaret Wright? Is he going to be Tom Seaver -- or Steve Avery?



Every year, something happens on that October stage that is destined to run on ESPN Classic for the next 300 years. But then come all those other stages. And then what?



For some men, those Octobers are a springboard. For others, they're the only highlight on the reel. Now it's Josh Beckett's turn to write the rest of his story.



"I don't think Josh wants to be a World Series MVP one year, and, five years later, hear people ask, 'Whatever happened to that guy?' " says Marlins reliever Chad Fox, who worked out with Beckett all winter in Texas. "And that says a lot, for a guy who's 23 years old to think that way.



"The amazing thing to me," Fox says, "is, he even wants it more now. He knows it's a new year, and you have to start over. So now he wants to go out and win 20 games, so he can prove what happened last year wasn't a fluke."



A fluke, huh? Is that a word that applies here? Wherever Beckett goes from here, whether he wins 200 more games or two, one thing we know is this: What happened last October was no fluke.



When your fastball crackles in the upper 90s and your slider snaps out of the sky in the 80s and your changeup buckles the best hitters on earth in the 70s, that's no fluke.



When you give up 21 hits in 42 2/3 postseason innings -- and strike out 47 -- that's no fluke.



It's only when you look at what he did and where he did it and whom he did it against that you had to wonder if you could really believe what you saw with your own eyes.



Let's get this straight now. A guy with exactly 17 career wins, no career regular-season shutouts, and no career regular-season complete games, did all this?




Became the first pitcher to throw a shutout in a game that won his team the World Series since Jack Morris in 1991 -- and the first to eliminate the Yankees with a shutout in Yankee Stadium since Lew Burdette in 1957.




Became the second pitcher since 1970 (joining only Morris) to throw a World Series shutout on three days' rest.



? I expect a lot of myself. I'm still only 23 years old. It's not like my career is over just because I won the World Series and I was World Series MVP. I still want to play this game for 15 years ... I'm not content with mediocrity. ?

? Josh Beckett, Marlins pitcher




Became (in Game 5 of the NLCS) the first pitcher to shut out the Cubs in a postseason game since (gulp) Babe Ruth.




Became the first pitcher (in that same NLCS game) to throw a postseason shutout in a game that would have sent his team home for the winter since Curt Schilling pulled the Phillies off the plank in the 1993 World Series.




Became the only pitcher besides Jim Palmer (1966 World Series) to throw a postseason shutout before he'd thrown a regular-season shutout.




Became just the third pitcher -- along with Palmer and Jim Beattie (1978 World Series) -- to throw a postseason complete-game before he'd thrown a regular-season complete game.




And became the first pitcher ever to throw two shutouts and two complete games in the postseason before he'd even thrown one of either in the regular season.



Whew. After those masterpieces, Beckett muses, "I don't think people will be asking too many questions about whether I can handle the pressure."



Funny thing is, though, when his teammates talk about Beckett's October, they don't talk about his two shutouts first. The Beckett freeze frame that still lingers in their brains is Game 7 of that NLCS, when Beckett marched in there in relief, as a one-man Rescue Squad, and threw four innings of one-hit relief. On two days' rest.



"Everyone talks about Game 6 in Yankee Stadium," says third baseman Mike Lowell. "But that game in Chicago was unbelievable. They asked him to go an inning or two. He went four."



But that just epitomized Josh Beckett's October. He got himself on one of those mystical rolls where none of those traditional rules applied. Two days' rest. Three days' rest. Wrigley Field. Yankee Stadium. He was oblivious to it all.



"One thing I like," Lowell says, "is when guys set themselves up with the perfect excuse -- 'I didn't get my four days' rest' -- and they don't think that way. That's how Josh was. He just put that stuff aside."



There is an aura men like this exude in those big moments, and everyone around them senses it. Was there any doubt last October that every Marlin knew exactly what was going on when it came time to hand Josh Beckett the ball?



Did Jack McKeon have any doubt when he asked this guy how he felt about starting the biggest game of his life on short rest?



"He almost came running back into the room," McKeon laughs now. "He said, 'I want the ball.' And he had a look in his eyes that said, 'I really want the ball.' Some guys might say, 'Yeah, I'll try it.' But you know they don't really mean it. This guy had no fear in his eyes."



He kept That Look from Inning No. 1 to Inning No. 9, too. Then, with the job almost done, Beckett did something players rarely do at moments that powerful: He stepped out of his little tunnel and took one brief gaze around him.




"I just stepped back to look around," he recalls now. "And I said, 'Damn, this is pretty cool.' Then I had to kind of say, 'Whoah.' "



And back he stepped into his domination zone, got those last three outs, applied the tag himself on Jorge Posada for the final out -- and squeezed the baseball so tight, it has never left his glove to this day.



"When I got back home (for the winter), I was going through my (equipment) bag," Beckett says. "I found my glove, and I said, 'Hey, here's the ball, right here.' "



So he placed the ball and glove inside a glass case. And there they remain -- Josh Beckett's defining moment, frozen in time.



And there's something almost perfect about that -- that glove, that baseball, that moment all bound together in a special spot in Beckett's world ... as the rest of him moves on to search for what comes next.



"I expect a lot of myself," Becket says, That Look back in his eyes. "I'm still only 23 years old. It's not like my career is over just because I won the World Series and I was World Series MVP. I still want to play this game for 15 years ... I'm not content with mediocrity."



Yet if you just looked at Beckett's career record (17 wins, 17 losses), you would be more likely to list his name in a column labeled "mediocrity" than you would in one labeled "Next Curt Schilling."



He owns fewer career wins than Josh Fogg, or Bruce Chen, or Dan Reichert. Over his two full seasons in the big leagues, he has won fewer games (15) than Jeff Weaver (18). He has won exactly as many games these last two years as Mike Maroth.



"That record -- I think he can use that to motivate himself," Lowell says. "I don't think he's proud of that. Hey, 17-17 with his stuff, is underachieving."



But you won't find Beckett trying to zig-zag away from that assessment or reaching into his bag of excuses. Yeah, he's had blister issues. Yeah, he made a DL visit with a sore elbow last year. But 17-17 -- "I think I'm definitely capable of more than that," he says, firmly.



There's a reason there has been a buzz about this guy since he was 19 years old, doing his pitching for Spring (Texas) High School and scorchballing his way to a national High School Pitcher of the Year award and the No. 2 overall slot in the 1999 draft.



"He had That Look even then," says Dan Jennings, now the Marlins' vice president of player personnel, then the scouting director of a Devil Rays team that made the agonizing decision to pass on Beckett and take Josh Hamilton with the No. 1 pick.



"I'll never forget (Tampa Bay's Texas scout) Doug Gassaway telling me, 'This is the greatest pitcher I've ever scouted,' " Jennings chuckles. "I said, 'Doug, you'll tell me that again about somebody in 2000 and then you'll say it again in 2001.' And he said, 'No. You can see it in this guy's face.' "



? This kid really wants it. It's written all over his face when he's out

there. ?

? A scouting director on Beckett



So what Beckett did last October is just what everyone in baseball expected him to be doing way back on the day he was drafted. But the biggest reason this is likely to be only the beginning for this guy is that it was also what he expected to be doing. And now he expects to keep on doing it for the next 15 years.



Part of being great is, you have to be driven to be great. And there's more than just a flame burning inside Josh Beckett. There's a California brush fire.



Over the last few months, we've asked a half-dozen prominent scouting minds whether they thought last October was the beginning of Beckett's journey up baseball's mountain or whether it was a temporary visit to very special elevation. Every one of them saw stardom in his future. And "makeup" was a universal theme in their reasoning.



"This kid really wants it," says one scouting director. "It's written all over his face when he's out there."



And it's written all over his face now, even four and a half months later, as he sits at his locker in spring training, grinding through the parade of interviews that has arrived at his stall all spring.



"My whole thing is just, don't rest on your laurels," he says. "Keep pounding away. Keep working. ... And stay healthy."



Oh, he'll have to do that, all right. But the blister problems are over now, thanks to Stan's Rodeo Ointment. And the elbow strain was just a six-week blip on his radar screen. So now Josh Beckett looks at his career kind of the way John Grisham looks at the first chapter of his new manuscript:



He has no doubt this is only the beginning of a raging national best seller.



It's just rare when the best sellers begin with the dream. And Josh Beckett has already lived the dream ("except," he laughs, "I didn't hit the game-winning home run).



"Now," he says, "I don't want to be known as that guy living off that dream."


Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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Ok, I love Beckett, always have and with his performance in the post-season last year he has officially arrived in the big league spot-light. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. I think the kid is a GREAT pitcher but he has shown very little during the regular season. He has to prove to me first that he can go a whole season without getting injured. I don't expect him to have a Cy-Young year, but a succesful one at least, by that I mean injury free baseball year round, he should also be in the top 3 in innings pitched (on our team) and have an ERA under 4. Then we can work from there. He is 23, I still say he needs a couple more years in the bigs to have a Cy-Young year. But this is my opinion, I am just trying to keep it real. With that said I hope he exceeds my expectations, but at least I have not set the bar so high for him like everyone else has. He is destined to fall short of all these rediculous expectations.

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