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Former skipper sees mature Beckett

Former skipper sees mature Beckett

MIAMI -- From the couch of his home in Elon, N.C., Jack McKeon sees the dazzling results that he witnessed from the dugout four years ago.

The 76-year-old, cigar-chomping former Marlins manager continues to marvel about Josh Beckett's exploits in the playoffs.

Now dominating as the ace of the Red Sox staff, Beckett was the 2003 World Series MVP for the Marlins.

McKeon and Beckett are linked in history primarily because the former manager, who remains a special assistant to Florida owner Jeffrey Loria, opted to use the hard-throwing Texas native on three days' rest to close out the '03 championship.

"I look at him now as a much more mature pitcher than he was in '03," said McKeon, who managed Beckett for three seasons. "I think that comes from experience. In the couple of years since he left us, he refined some things. But he's lights out right now. Better command. It looks like he's got himself under control all the time.

"But he was pretty special in 2003, the shutouts he threw."

On Thursday night, Beckett gets the nod in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series. The right-hander will attempt to send the series back to Fenway Park, as the Indians hold a 3-1 advantage. Watching Beckett in big-game situations reminds McKeon of Florida's miraculous 2003 championship run.

Looking back at '03, McKeon said Beckett began to blossom in the final weeks, but he really flourished in the playoffs. After securing the National League Wild Card in the final days, Beckett became the immediate ace of the young Florida rotation, which featured Brad Penny, Mark Redman, Carl Pavano and rookie Dontrelle Willis.

While the rotation was a strength, the Marlins' bullpen -- specifically middle relief -- was a question mark. McKeon addressed that area of concern by using Beckett, Penny, Pavano and Willis in relief roles during the postseason.

"I think one of the turning points was when [Beckett] came back and pitched those four innings in Chicago," McKeon said. "I look back at [Beckett], Penny and Pavano -- the three starters -- we ended up using them in the bullpen in the playoffs, but that was the turning point in those series. Those three starters came in relief. We didn't think about, if he had enough rest or not; you've got to win. You've got the whole winter to rest."

In the National League Championship Series, Beckett rescued the Marlins on a couple of occasions in their dramatic victory over the Cubs. Trailing 3-1 in the best-of-seven series on Oct. 12, Beckett tossed a two-hit shutout, striking out 11 in a 4-0 Florida win.

Three days later, in Game 7 at Wrigley Field, Beckett entered in the fifth inning and offered four innings of sensational relief. The right-hander gave up one run, a two-out, solo homer to Troy O'Leary in the seventh inning. Beckett exited after the eighth inning with Florida holding a three-run lead.

Ugueth Urbina polished off the ninth, preserving a 9-6 victory that propelled the Marlins into the World Series, where they faced the Yankees.

"In Game 7, when he came in relief, we were planning on using him an inning or two, tops," McKeon said. "He kept mowing them down. I said, 'The heck with that, let him stay out there.' Of course, he gave us four.

"He wanted the ball. That's why I thought he was a big-game pitcher. Other guys might say they are a little bit tired, or psychologically they might be afraid they'd go out there and get hit. He was like, 'Just give me the ball.'"

The Marlins went on to claim the World Series title in six games. Beckett, who was the losing pitcher in Game 3 at Dolphin Stadium, made his final impact of that postseason by blanking New York, 2-0, at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 25.

McKeon made a daring move by handing the ball to Beckett on three days' rest in what became the close-out game.

After Game 3, McKeon in his mind decided that Beckett would get the ball in Game 6 if the series went that long. Redman, a 14-game winner in the regular season, was in line to start the sixth game, but McKeon opted for his flame-throwing right-hander over the crafty lefty.

If the series extended to a Game 7, McKeon planned on going with Pavano, who pitched splendidly in Game 4. Had the series reached the maximum, Pavano too would have been going on short rest.

"After his first [World Series] start, I knew Beckett was going to pitch," McKeon said if the series advanced to a sixth game. "I didn't tell anybody. My choice was between him and Redman. You didn't need to be a brain scientist to figure that out."

Redman faced the Yankees in Game 2, and he suffered the loss, giving up four runs on five hits in 2 1/3 innings. Andy Pettitte collected the win for New York.

"I thought Red was very hittable for the Yankees," McKeon said. "They racked him up pretty good the first time he pitched against them. I thought that with his stuff versus Beckett's stuff, Beckett was the best choice. Nothing against Red, except for the fact that this was different, this was for all the marbles.

"I had to make my choice. Deep down, I wanted the guy who could be dominating. I wanted the guy who could overpower these Yankees hitters. I didn't think Redman could do it."

A few days before it became public that Beckett was pitching Game 6, McKeon sat his young star down and asked how he felt.

"It all came about when I called him in that day," McKeon said. "I said, 'How do you feel? I'm thinking about pitching you on three days' rest.' He said, 'Let me go out and throw a little bit.' He went out and threw a little bullpen [session], and then he came in and said, 'I'm ready.' That was all I needed."

In front of 55,773 at Yankee Stadium, Beckett polished off the Yankees, scattering five hits while striking out nine, giving the Marlins their second World Series title.

"You know, no one brings up the point that Pettitte pitched on three days' rest and beat us, 6-1, in Game 2," McKeon said. "Guys like Josh just relished the opportunity to pitch. We didn't even think about pitching him on three days' rest."

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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