Bending It with Beckett: Impressive Comeback Fueling Dodgers' Hopes

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Bending It with Beckett: Impressive Comeback Fueling Dodgers' Hopes
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The way Josh Beckett sees things, he’s pitching on borrowed time. You’ve heard of day to day? At 34, Beckett says he’s start to start.

Even with one more weapon, one less rib and that throwback, gunslinger 2.11 ERA.

“I don’t really worry about how I’m going to do anymore,” the man who’s already thrown one no-hitter this summer was saying the other day. “A lot of times when you’re younger, you worry about how you’re going to do. I just worry about how I’m going to feel.

“I don’t know how I’m going to feel when I get out there. I feel like if I feel good, I can make some adjustments, do some things, figure it out as I go.

“But if you don’t feel good, it’s hard to make adjustments. You’re probably just out there doing the thing that hurts the least.”

Maybe that sounds funny coming from the man who right now is the slam-dunk favorite for the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award. Or, maybe that’s how comeback players are supposed to sound.

In 15 starts this season, Beckett declined to even estimate the number of times he’s actually felt good.

“Ha,” he chuckles. “Define ‘good.’”

Nope, I say. You’re the one on the mound.

How do you define good?

“I guess whenever you get to that 2,000-inning mark, the days are few and far between when you feel good,” he says. “I think you feel sufficient.”

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Sufficient. Ranking third in the NL in ERA and fourth in WHIP (1.00) and tied for third in the majors in lowest opponents’ batting average (.199) is what passes for feeling sufficient these days for Beckett.

As for how often he’s felt poorly in those 15 starts...

“I can’t really put a number on it,” he says. “Certainly, some days I feel better than others. There have been a few times where leading up to it felt bad, and we’ve got good pills for pain management. That’s usually how I get through it.”

**** 

In his twilight, Beckett is doing far more than getting through it. If the playoffs started tomorrow, surely the Dodgers would slot him ahead of Hyun-Jin Ryu in the rotation, just behind Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

For a guy who was all but given up for the hardball boneyard last fall, that’s a pretty steep climb.

Really, it started about the time he did this summer, just after his first start back from the thoracic outlet syndrome surgery last July that could have ended his career. Translation: A rib was pushing against a nerve, cutting off circulation in his right arm, leaving his hand numb. There was no pain; he just couldn’t feel the ball. So either his career or his right first rib had to go.

Sure, there were plenty of questions running through his mind at the time, and most of them all added up to the big one: Was he finished?

“Before we found out what it was, that’s where that type of frustration set in,” Beckett says. “We didn’t know why my hand was numb. Then we got the diagnosis.”

Once that came, it was either have the surgery, or adios.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Associated Press

“I couldn’t pitch anymore,” says Beckett, who now is in the final season of a four-year, $68 million deal. “I had no endurance in my hand. By the time I was done warming up, my hand was completely numb and tired.

“So for me it was, ‘All right, this is the only option if I want to keep pitching.’ I had another year on my contract. I guess I could have said I was rehabbing and not done anything, just sucked up the money this year. But I felt obligated. I was treated very fair. The trainers did everything they could.

“Hell, I made five or six starts like this. I was never in any pain. My hand was just numb. Donnie [Mattingly, Dodgers manager] kept asking, ‘Hey, can you pitch?’ Yeah, I have no pain. I’m not going to tell you it’s going to go good, though."

He wound up 0-5 with a 5.19 ERA in eight starts before shuffling off to have his rib removed, toward what may well have been the final curtain of his major league career.

**** 

Do you ever notice injured players on the bench in October and wonder what they’re doing, why they’re there? The Cardinals always raved about Chris Carpenter’s presence, for one.

Well, sometimes, it works both ways. Sometimes, it’s not simply a case of the hurt guy cheerleading and lending moral support. Sometimes, that crackling October energy reverses course and recharges a drained battery, too.

When Beckett talks about how fair the Dodgers were with him, and how they did things they didn’t have to do, keeping him around as a part of their team last October is part of it. He hadn’t pitched since May 13. Yet he was there for the home games against the Braves and Cardinals.

“Seeing those playoff games really helped me push through December,” he says, pointing toward another reason why he didn’t simply shrug his shoulders and cash in his career. “It’s tough to work out knowing that at the end of all that working out and rehab, there’s at least a 50 percent chance that it’s not going to work.

“That pushed me through December. And then spring training was OK. I kept pushing. I expected the numbness to return. And it didn’t.”

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

He made his first start this season April 9. The day before, catcher A.J. Ellis had gone onto the disabled list with a bum knee. While there, Ellis’ acumen makes you wonder if he’s not going to follow in Dave Duncan’s footsteps one day as the next great catcher-turned-pitching coach.

Hey, Ellis told Beckett after a start against Arizona, pointing to some advanced stats. Look at these numbers. See how low slugging percentages dip when you throw your curveball?

To call it an intervention probably would be a little too strong. But manager Don Mattingly and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt chimed in, too.

“He’s got a little bit of that Texan in him in that he was going to keep challenging guys with the fastball, wanting to go at them, which was fine,” Mattingly says. “He was still throwing good enough to do that, in our minds.”

But it would have left him wholly inconsistent, start to start. Define feeling good, remember? Feeling sufficient usually isn’t nearly enough when you no longer throw 96 mph.

“Anytime you can think a little differently, it adds to the fastball again,” Mattingly says. “You can’t just sit there [as a hitter]. He’s throwing hard enough that you have to gear it up a little bit, right? And if you’re seeing enough breaking balls, that fastball just gains distance.”

In six starts during the month of May, nearly 34 percent of Beckett’s pitches were curves, according to brooksbaseball.net. Never before in his career had he thrown his curve for that high of a percentage in one month.

In four June starts entering Thursday night’s contest against the Cardinals, Beckett was using the curve 33 percent of the time.

**** 

Surprised? No, Beckett says. That’s not quite the right word.

He knew the surgery came with no guarantees. He knew that former lefty Kenny Rogers probably was the biggest thoracic outlet syndrome success story, having returned from 2001 surgery to help the Tigers to the 2006 World Series. Carpenter, Jeremy Bonderman, Aaron Cook and Matt Harrison are among those who have also had it.

“Coming back from surgery is such a mixed bag,” Beckett says. “It could have gone either way. It still could.”

Essentially, he has had to overhaul his entire game, his entire approach. It isn’t simply a matter of throwing more curves to make up for the fact that his fastball now averages around 91 mph instead of 94.

He can’t do as much between starts now, and that includes throwing. Unlike most other pitchers—and in a significant change from much of the rest of his career—he no longer throws bullpen sessions between starts. All he does is throw a little bit from flat ground, save his bullets, lessen the wear and tear on his body and hope he doesn’t feel like too much of a wreck on the day of his next start.

In-game, there are so many more curveballs. There is the realization that when he gets behind in the count, he rarely can use his fastball anymore.

Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

“You know what?” he says. “It really wasn’t that difficult. I’ve been struggling. It’s one of those things where the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different result. So for me, it was pretty simple.”

Says Mattingly: “To me, it’s being willing to have a little more moxie than the ol’ Texan, I’m coming after you.”

Other changes are evident as well. Eventually, the game humbles even the orneriest of characters. A welcoming smile has replaced the old chip on his shoulder, at least where reporters are concerned. He seems to be enjoying the little things more, from the clubhouse to the dugout.

“For me, it's just being around the guys,” Beckett says. “I don’t know how much longer I’m going to do this. Could be the end of this year, could be next year, whatever. I enjoy being around the guys, cutting up and whatever, that stuff a little more.”

From high atop the statistical leaderboards this summer, it’s suddenly a long, long way back from here to the brash, 23-year-old kid who stared down the vaunted Yankees in Yankee Stadium with a complete-game, Game 6 shutout in the 2003 World Series clincher for the Marlins.

“You know what, Miami, just the platform,” he says, recalling his fondest memories there. “We really only had that one year where we made the playoffs. But we all grew up together. That was the cool thing about that team. Most of us had come up in some form through the minor leagues with the Marlins.”

ALAN DIAZ/Associated Press

He ticks off the names of old mates A.J. Burnett, Brad Penny, Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera.

Then, Boston.

“We just kicked everybody’s ass,” he says of 2007. “It was plain and simple.”

He smiles at the Boston memories, too. All of them—chicken and beer be damned.

“I enjoyed my time there,” he says. “It’s not a fun place not to be at the top of your game, so I wouldn’t go back now.

“But I met so many great people up there. I really enjoyed my time there. It’s not something that I want to do later in life. That would be my advice to everybody: Go play there when you’re young and have your stuff.”

In other words, you never know when you’re suddenly going to have to be nimble enough to master the curveball. There were plenty of us who thought we had seen the last of Josh Beckett.

Now, few bend it like Beckett. And this guy, even start to start, on borrowed time, is something to see.

 

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball here. 

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