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Richard Justice

No-hitter could be Beckett's crowning achievement

No-hitter could be Beckett's crowning achievement

Josh Beckett may someday look back and see Sunday afternoon as the best, most satisfying day he had in baseball. OK, pitching brilliantly in the clinching game of a World Series is pretty good.

But when Beckett did that in 2003, he hadn't been the places he has been the last 11 years. He hadn't been traded twice. He wasn't approaching the twilight of his career. He wasn't coming back from a complicated surgical procedure to remove a rib to lessen nerve irritation that affected his right shoulder and hands.

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In 2003, he wasn't attempting to reprove himself. His no-hitter against the Phillies on Sunday was as good as pitching can be. It was power. It was timing. It was location. There were fastballs on the hands one moment, curveballs away the next. There were changeups scattered here, there and everywhere.

Beckett began the game by throwing Phillies leadoff man Ben Revere seven straight fastballs, all between 91-93 mph. It was as if he established a baseline right off from which everything would come.

Beckett rode the fastball all day, but when he struck out Ryan Howard with it in the first inning, he set him up with a nasty curveball-changeup combination. In the fourth inning, he threw Jimmy Rollins three straight curveballs before finishing with four straight fastballs.

He was commanding the strike zone and keeping hitters off balance, almost never giving them the same look two pitches in a row. At some point, the Phillies had to know they were beaten. Beckett simply was too good.

Beckett finished the eighth by striking out Cesar Hernandez on back-to-back changeups -- nasty ones thrown with the same arm action as his fastball. He threw Tony Gwynn Jr. a pair of curveballs to open the ninth, then went fastball-changeup-fastball to get an infield popup.

When the Phillies looked for a fastball, they got a changeup. When they guessed changeup, they got one of those big, tantalizing curveballs.

Beckett finished with Chase Utley. By then, he had to be fighting both exhaustion and nerves, knowing what was on the line. He missed with a pair of curveballs, then got Utley to swing at a change. He missed with a fastball, then Utley took a curve and a change to end the game on a called strike, the last two of Beckett's 128 pitches.

This 6-0 victory for the Dodgers doubled as a day when the world learned what only a few people have known. That is, Josh Beckett's pitching aptitude is high, very high -- maybe as high as anyone in the game.

He has had a fascinating career in that way. Sometimes, he shows his worst side to the public. He says exactly the wrong thing and really doesn't care what you, I or anyone else thinks.

It's as if he can't turn off the competitive fire he knows he must take to the mound. Or maybe he simply doesn't want to reveal too much of himself. Whatever it is, Beckett has always known the finer points of his craft.

Through 14 big league seasons, when he hasn't been fighting injuries or himself, he has had the ability to dominate a game the way only a few can. This afternoon was not about lighting up a radar gun. Rather, it was taking a couple of decades of throwing baseballs and thinking about throwing baseballs, and using all of it.

At 34, Beckett no longer can run it up to home plate at 97 mph the way he once did. Big deal, he said.

"Everyone loses velocity as they get older," he said last spring.

He has always understood pitching.

"Pitching translates," he said.

Beckett was 20 years old when he spoke those words, and he shouldn't have been so wise. The Marlins had made him the second pick in the 1999 First-Year Player Draft because he could throw nearly 100 mph.

He understood that a fastball on the hands was a good pitch at any level. He also understood that locating pitches and keeping hitters off balance would make all those other pitches better.

That was true at Spring (Texas) High School, and Beckett believed in his heart it would be true in every game he ever pitched. Because he did have the great fastball and because he was brash, some people never saw that he was the complete package.

When he has been healthy -- and he has been frustrated by an assortment of injuries through the years -- he has been capable of throwing games as good as anyone. When he stepped on the mound at Yankee Stadium for Game 6 of the 2003 World Series, he was prepared for that moment.

He threw hard. He threw devastating breaking pitches too. He challenged the Yankees and dominated them with a five-hit shutout that clinched a championship.

Beckett was a big kid -- 6-foot-4 or so -- and so like every other Texas kid who threw hard, scouts saw him as the second coming of Nolan Ryan or Roger Clemens.

Beckett loved throwing hard. He also loved frustrating hitters. He absolutely loved perfecting his craft, tinkering with his pitches, getting better and better at every level.

This season began with uncertainty. Beckett was about to turn 34 and coming off a season in which he made just eight starts for the Dodgers. He was recovering from a complicated surgical procedure, and it was impossible to know how much high-level baseball he had left.

He has been terrific through his first nine starts, though, and besides making a statement for himself Sunday afternoon, Beckett made one for the Dodgers. If he continues to pitch this way -- and if Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke stay healthy -- the Dodgers have a chance to be scary good.

Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. This was a 34-year-old pitcher -- a guy making his 321st start and winning his 135th game, a guy who has had trouble staying healthy -- pitching one of those games that could serve as a learning tool for every young pitcher.

Beckett has never feared losing 3-4 mph of velocity because he knew that pitching was about more than that. This game verified his opinions, and while he had to be swirling with emotions in the postgame celebration, it may have occurred to him that this next chapter of his career may just be the best of all.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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