Who says Josh Beckett has lost a little off his fastball?
With statistical studies claiming that his average velocity has dropped from 94.7 miles per hour in his first year with the Red Sox (2006) to 91.5 this year, Beckett showed Tuesday that he still has gas left in his tank.
On his 32d birthday, Beckett combined with Rich Hill and Alfredo Aceves to throw a four-hit shutout, 5-0, over the Seattle Mariners at Fenway Park, with Beckett recording nine strikeouts.
“He belongs on that hill,’’ said manager Bobby Valentine after the Sox closed out a six-game home stand with five consecutive wins. “It’s his saddle, and he looked very comfortable in it.’’
Beckett was anything but in his previous start last Thursday, when he lost, 8-3, to the Indians and was subjected to a firestorm of criticism for playing golf on an off day after being scratched from a start because of a sore right lat.
Beckett was booed off the mound following a woeful performance in which he allowed seven runs on seven hits and two walks in 2 1/3 innings.
“I thought it was blown way out of proportion,’’ said Tim Wakefield, coming to Beckett’s defense after he was feted by a Fenway crowd of 37,333 during a pregame ceremony for his 17 years of service to the Red Sox.
“Everybody knows that sometimes you need a break. He threw 120 pitches and obviously the Red Sox had to make a decision on Aaron Cook and that was the spot to put him in.
“It doesn’t matter. He told you he wasn’t hurt. Bobby told you that he didn’t think he was hurt. A round of golf isn’t going to kill you. It’s probably going to help you more than anything.’’
The recalcitrant righthander seemed to worm his way into the good graces of an agitated Red Sox Nation - if only for a day - by blanking the Mariners over seven innings, allowing four hits and two walks, with his fastball topping out at 93 m.p.h.
“The minute I saw him throw the first pitch, I knew he was going to have a good game,’’ said David Ortiz, who led Boston’s nine-hit attack by going 2 for 3 with a solo home run in the third and a bunt single in the fifth. “He got his attitude and his stuff going, and it was great.’’
Beckett seemed to make a statement when he fired a 93-m.p.h. fastball past Dustin Ackley for a called strike on his first pitch. Ackley wound up fanning on an 89-m.p.h. fastball.
“I don’t know if I was trying to make a statement, if that’s what it did,’’ said Beckett, who extended to five a streak of quality starts by Sox pitchers, improving to 3-4 and lowering his ERA to 4.97.
“I have a bad habit of sometimes looking up there [at the scoreboard] myself. But I think location here is key, unless you’re throwing Daniel Bard-hard, which I obviously haven’t done in a long time.
“I feel like I got my fingers on top of the ball, so even when the ball was up, I still had some angle to my pitches. I think that’s why a lot of times they didn’t hit the ball flush.’’
Or at all. Beckett retired the first nine batters, ringing up six strikeouts. In the third inning, he struck out the side on a 92-m.p.h fastball and a pair at 93.
“I really liked his fastball,’’ Valentine said. “But his other pitches were just as important. His curveball was good, his cutter was good, his changeup was good and he was in the zone with all those pitches.’’
So dominant was Beckett that he allowed only one runner, Ichiro Suzuki, to reach third. The Mariners right fielder legged out an infield hit with two outs in the sixth, then stole second and third. Suzuki was stranded, though, when Kyle Seager hit a warning-track fly to right.
Ortiz gave Beckett a 1-0 lead in the third when belted his eighth homer of the season, a shot to right off starter Blake Beavan (1-4).
The Sox tacked on two more against Beavan in the fourth. Cody Ross drew a walk with one out and went to third on Daniel Nava’s sharp single to right. Mike Aviles, who went 2 for 4 with a pair of doubles, ripped a two-bagger to center to score Ross, making it 2-0.
Ryan Sweeney drove in Nava from third with a ground out to second.
Ortiz scored the fourth run on what had to be his strangest tour of the basepaths at Fenway. Against an overshifted infield in the fifth, he reached on a bunt single down the third-base line. He reached second when shortstop Munenori Kawasaki came off the bag prematurely on Gonzalez’s 3-6-3 fielder’s choice, and went to third on a wild pitch by reliever Charlie Furbush.
Will Middlebrooks scored Ortiz with a well-struck single to left, his 14th RBI since being called up.
The Red Sox added a fifth run in the eighth when Aviles doubled to left to score Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who reached on a lead-off double.
Valentine said the steady rain “made pitching more laborious’’ for Beckett in his last few innings. By then, it was evident Beckett was going to have to rely upon more than velocity.
“The way I threw those last three innings, yeah, I was kind of pitching on guile,’’ he said.
Given the quality starts the Sox received from their other four starters, including a complete game by Jon Lester in Monday’s 6-1 win, it seemed Beckett was intent on not letting his team down.
“Josh, as every player, has things that motivate him,’’ Valentine said. “He was motivated today, it seemed. But he’s one of the big guys. It’s not like he’s following what the rest of the guys are doing, that’s for sure. He wants to be a leader of the pack. And we need him to be, because he can be.’’Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.