This was another classic October performance for Beckett. Oh, and the stakes were pretty decent, too, like an AL pennant for the Cleveland Indians and the life of the Red Sox in the 2007 postseason.
The Clevelanders have been waiting 59 years for a World Series championship, but the Indians had won three straight in this ALCS. Jacobs Field was a sea of red and white for Game 5, the general theme of the evening that this was "Tribe Time." And with a 3-1 series lead, yes, that seemed like a position that could be both popular and appropriate.
Into this environment strode Josh Beckett, who is making the postseason his own for the second time in his 27-year-old life. He is basically all that is standing between the Red Sox and another numbing postseason disappointment, and in this role, he seems to be seriously outnumbered.
It is OK. He is more than enough. The Indians have already exploded for two seven-run innings in the ALCS. Their prowess at the plate has been established beyond dispute. But here, between the serious heat, the astounding breaking ball and the baffling change of speeds, there is little or nothing for the Indians to do with the bats. They are stymied, just as they were in Game 1 of the ALCS, just as the Angels were in Game 1 of the AL Division Series.
"We were in between all night long," Indians manager Eric Wedge said.
The Indians got one run in the first, but then Beckett settled in and there was nothing more to get. The Indians, after the first inning, got two measly hits off Beckett. They were reduced from being on the brink of the World Series to being the lesser half of the acquired knowledge that great pitching beats even the best hitting.
C.C. Sabathia, on the hill for the Indians, avoided trouble rarely, but avoided disaster for six innings, thus keeping Cleveland within one run. But then Sabathia tired in the seventh, the Cleveland bullpen had an uncharacteristic bout of ineffectiveness and the Red Sox and Beckett owned this one, 7-1.
Beckett has been here before, with almost eerie similarity -- Game 5 of the 2003 NLCS, his Florida Marlins down, 3-1, on the doorstep of elimination. He threw a two-hit shutout against the Chicago Cubs and the Marlins eventually won not only the NLCS but the World Series.
Why? Josh Beckett. He was his own warmup act in 2003. He pitched the clinching Game 6 of the 2003 World Series, on short rest, and threw a five-hit shutout at the Yankees. He was the Series MVP then. For all of Manny being Manny, Beckett is Boston's MVP now.
On Thursday, Beckett went eight innings, with one run, five hits, one walk, 11 strikeouts. For this postseason, he has a 1.17 ERA. In 23 innings, he has struck out 26 and walked one.
These are numbers that could rank with the work of some of the greatest pitchers in the game. Some of this will be smudged for historical purposes if the Red Sox do not advance to the World Series. But if they advance and if Beckett continues at this pace, his postseason work could be fairly measured against that of a Bob Gibson or a Sandy Koufax. It might even suggest the postseason performance of his current teammate, Curt Schilling. Beckett's total career obviously does not resemble those careers, but his Octobers could.
The sideshow aspect Thursday night was a little exchange with Lofton, who has been making people angry at this level for 15 years now. In the fifth inning, Beckett took exception to Lofton laying his bat across home plate in preparation for going to first on a walk. The problem was that a strike had just been called and Lofton wasn't going anywhere.
As Lofton flied to left, the two barked at each other, until Lofton, having reached first base, but also having been retired, turned and headed toward the mound and Beckett. The benches emptied, but cooler heads -- many, many of them -- prevailed and no violence was inflicted on any participant.
"It was a lot of stuff," Beckett said of his difference of opinion with Lofton. "It kind of goes back before today. Those things have a way of working themselves out, though."
Of his night's work, Beckett said basically what he usually says on his best nights: "I felt good. It's easy when you've got everything going. Once again, I had great defense and I held 'em off just long enough for us to put up some runs. It was a team effort."
The most important element -- more important than numbers, more important than a lifetime dispute with Kenny Lofton, more important than the curiosity that an ex-girlfriend of Beckett's sang the national anthem -- is the timing of Beckett's work. It was either Josh Beckett at his best, or the Red Sox at rest; sent away against their will.
"I think it says a lot about him and we've leaned on him all year," said manager Terry Francona.
There could be one last, brief shining moment in which Beckett could once again save the day for the Red Sox in the ALCS.
"We'll delve into that later," Beckett said. "As of right now, yeah, I think that would be something I could do."
Even if that occurs, most of the rest of this series will be out of his hands. The other 24 Red Sox will be asked to carry the load. Frankly, it is their turn. Short of being Don Larsen times three, Josh Beckett has done as much as any one man could with three October starts.