Friday, May 1, 2009

Breaking balls to Longoria doom Beckett

Josh Beckett turned in his worst start of the season on Thursday, lasting just 4 2/3 innings and allowing seven runs on 10 hits. He struck out eight and had "tremendous" stuff, manager Terry Francona told reporters, but he was hit hard in the third, fourth and fifth innings and eventually had to be lifted for Hunter Jones.

But this wasn't just a one-start issue. Beckett had finished the seventh inning just once in his first four starts; on Saturday against the Yankees, he allowed eight earned runs in five innings pitched. His ERA now is at 7.22.

If we want to be simplistic about it, here's a two-part answer to Beckett's problem:
1. Beckett is walking 5.0 batters per nine innings, almost twice his career average before this season.
2. When the bases are empty, Beckett is holding opponents to a .254 batting average (and .309 on-base percentage). When runners are on base, opponents are hitting .357 and OBPing .456. Eleven of his 16 walks, in fact, have come when there already are runners on base.

If you want to be more simplistic about it, though, Beckett's issues on Thursday came down to just one pitch -- the third curveball he threw to Evan Longoria in the bottom of the third inning.

Beckett ran into some bad luck to start off the third inning; Jason Bartlett reached when his bouncer deflected off the glove of Mike Lowell, and B.J. Upton reached on a swinging bunt down the third-base line that Beckett couldn't corral. But that's baseball -- everyone hits a patch of bad luck once in a while. The best pitchers are the ones who can pitch around that bad luck.

With runners on first and second and one out, Beckett missed badly with his first two pitches to Carl Crawford and ended up walking him; he'd done just fine getting Crawford to swing at a cutter at the knees in the first inning, but he couldn't find the strike zone in the third.

That brought up Longoria with the bases loaded.

Longoria had hit a Beckett fastball hard in the first inning; he turned on a fastball on the inside corner and hit a towering fly ball that Jason Bay eventually tracked down on the warning track.

That, perhaps, was on Beckett's mind when he threw a first-pitch curveball to Longoria in the third inning. It missed, barely, low and away. Beckett then came back with another curveball over the plate that Longoria swung at and missed.

The next pitch, though, was the at-bat-deciding pitch. Beckett threw another curveball, his third straight curveball, and missed badly off the inside part of the plate.

In Beckett's career, opponents have hit .364 and slugged .605 out of a 2-1 count; they've hit .152 and slugged .214 out of a 1-2 count. That's a huge distinction. (A year ago, all American League hitters hit .336 and slugged .544 out of a 2-1 count; they hit .185 and slugged .265 out of a 1-2 count -- similar but less drastic numbers than the ones Beckett has seen in his career.)

Even worse, Beckett had thrown three straight breaking balls and was trailing in the count -- there was almost no doubt he could come back with a fastball.

Beckett did come back with a fastball, a 94-mile-an-hour four-seamer on the outside part of the plate. Longoria ripped it up the right-center-field gap to plate all three runners and give the Rays a 3-0 lead.

Beckett didn't need to strike Longoria out. He didn't even need to escape the inning unscathed; even though Matt Garza had brought filthy stuff to the mound, his team would still be in the game if he allowed one run.

But when he threw his curveball, he was throwing what he wanted to be a swing-and-a-miss pitch. By the time he went back to the fastball, he was throwing a get-me-over pitch. That was the pitch Longoria tattooed -- and the pitch that turned a little bad luck into a bad outing.

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