In the opener of the American League Championship Series, the Red Sox will hand the ball to Josh Beckett, who is no stranger to the heightened pressure of the postseason. The Indians will deal their own ace in C.C. Sabathia -- an imposing left-hander who quieted the Yankees' potent bats in the first round.
The ballots for this year's AL Cy Young Award have been cast, and Beckett and Sabathia undoubtedly top the list of contenders. Being pitted against Sabathia presents Beckett with an opportunity to show why he's worthy of the annual accolade, and a win would not only put Boston closer to the World Series, but it would also add another chapter to Beckett's postseason heroics.
"Their guy is one of the best in the game," said Boston manager Terry Francona. "We feel like our guy is one of the best in the game. When you get to this time of season, it's pretty awesome and that's why we're playing this game. Anything less would be a little disappointing."
The expectations for Beckett -- baseball's only 20-game winner this year -- are certainly lofty heading into the first clash with Cleveland. When Beckett takes the hill on Friday, the 27-year-old right-hander will not have pitched for the Red Sox in nine days, but he was dominant in that Game 1 outing of the Division Series against the Angels.
Beckett spun nine stellar innings, logging a four-hit shutout with eight strikeouts to lead Boston to its first win of this postseason. Prior to that showing, Beckett's last playoff start came with the Marlins in Game 6 of the 2003 World Series, when he blanked the Yankees for nine innings and was then mobbed on the field at Yankee Stadium as Florida celebrated the title-clinching victory.
"He's shown that the big stage and the big games don't faze him," said Boston third baseman Mike Lowell, who was on the Marlins with Beckett in '03. "Hopefully, he can execute a good game plan, because, when you speak of [he and Sabathia], they're two of the best pitchers in the game."
Half of Beckett's six career postseason starts have been complete-game shutouts. Over the course of 166 career regular-season starts, he's only turned in four complete efforts with just a pair of shutouts. In seven playoff games, Beckett owns a 1.74 ERA with 55 strikeouts across 51 2/3 frames.
Still, despite the obvious spike in performance once the calendar shifts to October, Beckett shrugs off the success.
"It's easy on days when you've got everything working for you," Beckett said. "It's those days that you don't have everything going that are the days you've got to grind it out and hope you score a couple more runs than they do. The other day was just one of those starts that I had everything going and everything worked in my favor."
More often than not, things tilted in Beckett's favor throughout this season -- the best showing of his impressive career. He finished 20-7 with a 3.27 ERA with 194 strikeouts against 40 walks over 200 2/3 innings. In another year, Beckett might be the hands-down favorite to take home the Cy Young Award, but Sabathia kept pace with him all season long.
While helping the Indians to the AL Central title, Sabathia went 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA. The southpaw collected 209 strikeouts and issued just 37 free passes over 241 innings for Cleveland, which tied Boston for the most wins in the Majors with 96. Needless to say, Friday's opener in the Fens may include more broken bats than base hits.
"We're in for a very good treat," Boston pitching coach John Farrell said. "Both guys are extremely successful in their own right and both are probably going to be 1-2 in the Cy Young Award voting this year."
This season against the Indians, Beckett posted a 1-1 record, but he pitched to a tidy 1.80 ERA over his two starts. His lone defeat to the Tribe came on July 25, when Beckett spotted Cleveland just one run, but was outdueled by right-hander Fausto Carmona -- the Indians' starter for Game 2.
Beckett said he believes the key to stopping Cleveland's offense begins with limiting the production of leadoff hitter center fielder Grady Sizemore. If he can keep Sizemore off the basepaths, Beckett said it can be easier when dealing with the meat of the Indians' lineup.
"You've got to start at the top with Grady," Beckett said. "He's the one that gets everything going. Obviously, they've got their thumpers in the middle. During this time of year, not many teams don't have that. It starts with keeping guys like Grady off base and just pitching to your strengths and exploiting weaknesses."
That will be especially important, considering the skill set of the pitcher opposing Beckett. Even if Beckett turns in another playoff classic, it won't mean anything if the Red Sox can't solve Sabathia.
"We have to go out there with Josh," Boston catcher Jason Varitek said, "and allow this team an opportunity to score some runs. This matchup, it's a great thing for baseball. Those two guys have had tremendous years and they both have tremendous stuff."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less