Better Days For Josh Beckett: 2007 In Cleveland

Josh Beckett owned the 2007 postseason and none of his four wins were bigger than Game 5 of the ALCS in Cleveland.

The Boston Red Sox have certainly seen better days than recent ones, as a 4-6 homestand, capped off by consecutive losses in games started by Jon Lester and Josh Beckett become the latest installment in a series of disappointments. Beckett himself has seen better days. So as the Sox are in the midst of a four-game series in Cleveland, part of a 10-game road trip that could officially bury the season, let’s take a look back at the best of those times—when Beckett beat then-Cleveland starter C.C. Sabathia in a do-or-die American League Championship Series game at Jacobs Field in 2007.

Beckett and Sabathia were the best two starters in the American League, and at this point it was anyone’s guess who would win the Cy Young Award. Beckett was a 20-game winner and had worked 200 innings for only the second time in his career. Sabathia had 19 wins, but the workhorse had logged 241 innings, and his ERA was slightly lower, at 3.21 compared to Beckett’s 3.27.

On the flip side, Beckett pitched against tough AL East lineups, with six starts a year against the Yankees making for tougher fare than anything Sabathia dealt with in the AL Central. This much was certain—both were elite pitchers, and when they met in Game 5, all the pressure was on Beckett.

After Boston took the opening game of the series—with Beckett beating Sabathia, Cleveland had taken over and won three straight. The white towels were waving at Jacobs Field as the fans were smelling their first pennant in ten years and a chance at their first World Series title since 1948.

If you put it in even bigger perspective, sports in Cleveland was on a high. LeBron James had officially “arrived” as an NBA star in the spring, leading the Cavs to the Finals. The Indians were stocked with young talent like Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez in the everyday lineup, to go with Sabathia and Fausto Carmona in the rotation. This long-suffering sports city was ready to break though and they were ready for October 18, 2007 to be a big step along the way.

Cleveland played mind games, getting Beckett’s ex-girlfriend to sing the national anthem.

Cleveland was serious enough to open the game with some psychological warfare. Beckett’s ex-girlfriend, Danielle Peck, was called on to sing the national anthem. It made for a humorous story, but I can’t imagine any sane person would think Beckett was going to suddenly get all rattled by the presence of Peck. Although given the pitcher had been lights-out dominant in his previous two postseason appearances (Game 1 of the ALDS against the Angels, along with the ALCS opener) one can see what they might have tried anything.

While the Indians might have had the commanding 3-1 lead, you could make the compelling case—as I recall doing earlier in the day to friends—that Game 5 would decide the pennant. If the Sox won, they would return to Fenway Park and have Curt Schilling on the mound for Game 6, and if it went to Game 7 all the pressure would be on the Indians. While you couldn’t discount the Tribe’s chances, it was clear that Beckett or no, closing at home was their single best chance to finish the series and all the momentum was on their side.

Kevin Youkilis reversed the momentum right out of the gate, as he homered to left field and gave Boston a 1-0 lead. Cleveland put together its best inning at the plate in the bottom of half of the inning. Grady Sizemore blooped a double to left, Asdrubal Cabrera hit a short single to right and even though Travis Hafner hit into a double play, Sizemore scored the tying run.

Dustin Pedroia had been mired in a postseason slump. The rookie second baseman was under the microscope and was typically defiant, insisting that he was getting good swings and the hits would come. A single to lead off the third inning came, though he was wiped out when Youkilis hit into a double play. David Ortiz then walked and then Manny drove him in with an RBI single in a way only Manny could do. A towering fly ball to rightfield hit the top of the fence and bounced back in. There was no instant replay at this time, so even though the Fox cameras indicated the ball should have been out, it was ruled in play. Ortiz was running on contact and scored anyway. Manny…well, he was Manny and had to settle for a single after observing the flight of the ball.

As Joe Buck accurately put in on Fox, most of the “Manny Being Manny” moments were in the funny category, at least until the end of his tenure. This was the kind of thing that was maddening and it meant he wasn’t in scoring position when Mike Lowell came to the plate. Lowell did strike out, so it was no harm and the score was 2-1.

Kevin Youkilis homered in the first and tripled in a key run later on to give Beckett the run support he needed.

Boston got the first two runners on in the top of the fourth when Coco Crisp struck out. Crisp’s presence in the lineup was an increasing source of agitation in Red Sox Nation, as Jacoby Ellsbury had come up in September and been a big spark to the lineup. Terry Francona was inclined to make the move, but opted for the switch-hitting Crisp against the tough lefty in Sabathia.

Another Red Sox whose presence was a constant source of agitation was Julio Lugo. Three nights later in Game 7 he would nearly hand away the pennant and subsequent World Series title when he dropped a pop fly in the seventh inning. Tonight he just hit into an inning-ending double-play and the game remained a tense 2-1.

One inning later the Sox loaded the bases against Sabathia and Bobby Kielty came to the plate. A week  later Kielty would hit the home run that all but sealed the World Series clincher against the Colorado Rockies, but in this game flew out and though Boston was getting to Sabathia, the lead remained at one run. Cleveland threatened in the bottom of the inning with two on and two out, but Beckett blew away Cabrera to end the threat.

In the seventh, the Red Sox got some breathing room. Pedroia doubled to lead off the inning and Youkilis tripled him in. A sac fly by Ortiz made it 4-1 and with Beckett locked in, things looked good. They looked even better an inning later when, with Sabathia out, Cleveland combined a couple walks, an error and a passed ball to help create a three-running for the Red Sox. The score was 7-1, and that’s where the game ended.

Beckett would strike out 11 and complete eight innings of work in just 109 pitches. Those who felt that Game 5 was the one Cleveland needed to get were proven prophetic, as the Red Sox blew out Cleveland early in Game 6  and then late in Game 7, for a combined score of 24-4 in clinching the pennant at home.  Beckett was named MVP of the ALCS and if there could have been an MVP for all three postseason rounds collectively, he would have won that too, adding a shutdown effort of Colorado to open the World Series.

C. C. Sabathia had better days ahead of him. He would be revealed as the Cy Young winner and has been a part of every postseason since 2007. The big fella was traded to Milwaukee in 2008 where he would virtually singlehandedly lift the Brewers into the playoffs. A big free agent payday in New York awaited and he got the postseason monkey off his back, winning two ALCS games in 2009 and being named series MVP as his team went on to win the World Series.

That glorious sports era that Cleveland was on the threshold of? Well, Sizemore and Hafner developed injury problems, Carmona never matched his 19-win performance of 2007 and the team hasn’t had a winning season since. LeBron’s Cavs would get bounced from the playoffs by Boston two of the next three years and never return to the Finals before the star took his talents to South Beach.  To jam a knife into the wound, the Browns narrowly missed the playoffs in 2007 and the Ohio State football team was buried in the national championship game for the second straight year.  Not even pre-2004 Boston fans know suffering like the folks in Cleveland.

But for Josh Beckett, things couldn’t have looked brighter than they did in October 2007. As his time in Boston seems headed for a less-than-glorious ending, let’s not recent days cloud what he once delivered.

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