In one corner, there's the Red Sox' Josh Beckett. Beckett's first half was a dream come true, as the Sox' ace went 11-3 and put up a 3.35 ERA, but his August was a nightmare. First a seven-run stinkbomb in Toronto, then an eight-run monstrosity of a start in a big game against the Yankees, and all of a sudden Beckett had fallen from grace.
In the other corner, there's Ervin Santana. The Angels' 26-year-old right-hander, an All-Star last season, had a 5.52 ERA in 20 starts going into Thursday night. His fastball was gone, his command was a mess and a pitcher that should have been hitting his prime was instead hitting rock bottom.
Then came Thursday. The two pitchers were pitted against each other in a battle of potential October hurlers. In a likely preview of the American League Divisional Series, the Sox and Angels took the field for a pivotal September game, both teams uncertain of whether they could trust their respective starting pitchers.
The Red Sox may have gotten their answer.
While the Sox suffered a frustrating setback against the Angels on Thursday night, losing 4-3 in the ninth inning and snapping a seven-game winning streak, they did find a silver lining. They found it in the form of a playoff-ready ace.
Beckett got a no-decision in the Sox loss, but his performance on the mound was solid considering the opponent, a heavy-hitting Angels team bound for October. The Sox ace allowed three runs in eight innings, walking zero Angels and striking out seven. For the most part, he was dominant — his two moments of weakness were a Howie Kendrick home run in the third inning and a Chone Figgins RBI double in the fifth.
He weathered those two slip-ups and would have been in line for his 16th win — if not for a third strike that bounced through Jason Varitek's legs in the seventh inning.
The point is, Beckett is back. The guy we watched self-destruct time and again a month ago? He's gone. Thing of the past. The Boston righty steadily improved over a stretch of five starts — allowing first eight runs, then five, then four, then three, then one run in five innings against the Rays this past weekend. He showed a pattern of growth leading into this week, and the fine performance continued on Thursday night.
Beckett was aggressive against the Angels. He went after the strike zone. He threw 114 pitches, 78 for strikes, and he was just as efficient in the eighth inning as in the first. If he still looks this good in October, the Red Sox should be in good shape.
As for the Angels, the results are still a little unclear. Santana was good, going seven innings deep himself, but he still made a couple mistakes too many. Nothing's changed — the Angels are still unsure about whether they have a guy they can trust in October.
Santana faced the Red Sox in the playoffs last year, starting Game 2 of the ALDS at home. The results weren't so hot — Boston rallied for four runs in the top of the first.
These are two teams that have gotten to know each other well. They've met in the first round of the playoffs in each of the last two years, and they're lined up for a third as we speak.
It's all about pitching matchups in October — aces against aces and No. 2s against No. 2s. And in a crucial litmus test with the playoffs looming large, the Red Sox appear to have the upper hand.
A month ago, the Red Sox had reason to be nervous. Now, that's not the case.
The Red Sox' staff is ready. They have their ace back, and he's raring to go. As for the Angels, we'll have to wait and see.
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