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Bill Plaschke

Series MVP Shows Maturity Is Overrated

October 26, 2003|Bill Plaschke

NEW YORK — Josh Beckett scrambled off the mound, grabbed the slow roller, reached out his glove, and punched.

Punched Jorge Posada. Decked the ghosts of October. Leveled the curses of youth. Socked the sports landscape.

This tag being the final out of the clinching game of the World Series, the Texas kid then showed the same sort of respect for the Yankee Stadium turf.

By leaping to the air and stomping on it.

America, meet your newest baseball star.

Tumbleweed on his chin, a chip on his shoulder, and magic on his fastball.

He was ordinary until October, interesting until last week, then unimaginable on Saturday, throwing a five-hit shutout on three days' rest to lead the Florida Marlins to a 2-0 victory over the New York Yankees and the unlikeliest of world championships.

America, meet your World Series MVP.

Walking as if he'd just climbed off a horse, drinking a beer where others were drowning in champagne, greeting well-wishers with his cap still pulled low over his eyes, as if the game never ends.

Said a laughing, bubbly-soaked Jeff Conine: "He's ridiculous, just ridiculous."

Shouted a cork-dodging Brad Penny: "The only word for him is unbelievable."

Mumbled a smirking Beckett: "I can't believe we don't have a game tomorrow. That's kind of the weird thing right now. Not to say that winning the World Series is not a big thing, but ..."

But, yeah, he's different.

On a team of wide-eyed overachievers, he's the cocky one.

In a group of friendly no-names, he's the irritable one.

He's 23 going on, well, 23. He swaggers down hallways. He casually curses in televised news conferences. He rolls his eyes at those who aren't blessed to share his country cool.

But when the Marlins needed nine innings of fearlessness in sports' most frightening venue Saturday night, he was absolutely perfect.

"I know everybody says he's cocky, but think about it, that's the only way he can be," said teammate Chad Fox. "When you're that age, and put on a national stage, if you don't believe in yourself, you're not gonna last."

Oh, he's lasting all right.

After Saturday, he's lasting with the World Series likes of Jack Morris. Beckett is the first pitcher since Minnesota's Morris in 1991 to throw a complete-game shutout in a deciding World Series game.

You have to go back 20 years to find the last time a pitcher allowed as few as five hits in a deciding complete-game shutout, back to Baltimore's Scott McGregor.

But you have to go back only a week to find a similar Beckett performance.

Remember, he threw four shutout innings against the Chicago Cubs in the Marlins' Game 7 victory in the NLCS.

And that was on two days' rest, as his two-hitter earlier in the series saved the Marlins from elimination.

"He's awesome, he made a name for himself this postseason," marveled Brian Cashman, Yankee general manager. "He's cocky for a reason, because he can back it up. He's the Mr. October of this October."

And to think, before this month, he was Mr. Mediocre.

He began this postseason with a career record of 17-17 with a 3.32 ERA. He finished this year with nine wins, having been plagued by an elbow injury and a perception that he was just another first-round draft pick who wasn't working hard enough.

At one point, Manager Jack McKeon became so frustrated with Beckett, he just stopped talking to him.

"He has his little ways of motivating you," Beckett said. "He will just ignore you for a couple of days. You are like, 'What's going on?' "

What happened was, Beckett was growing up.

"Being around my grandchildren, I'm used to dealing with all kinds of kids," McKeon said with a smile. "I understood Josh."

Beckett doesn't like being ignored. He finished the year with a 2.08 ERA in September, the Marlins sneaked into the playoffs, somebody asked Beckett what he thought about their chances, and suddenly that fearlessness emerged.

"I think with youth, there's a little bit of stupidity," he said at the time. "I think we just might be stupid enough to pull this off."

A couple of weeks later, he had elevated his chatter to challenging disbelievers, saying, "Who says we can't win? It's just two baseball teams, right? I don't believe in ghosts and Babe Ruth and all that."

Finally, this weekend, Beckett was comfortable enough to be making fun of McKeon's clothing -- "He brought a lot of things to the team, like one of those bad sweaters" -- while McKeon was trusting him with the most important moment in his long baseball life.

A more traditional manager would have pitched Beckett on Sunday, in Game 7, if necessary. But McKeon knew that if the Marlins didn't finish the Yankees in Game 6, even Cy Young might not be able to stop them in Game 7.

So out Beckett swaggered Saturday, face to face with Yankee leadoff hitter Derek Jeter, the only Yankee to hit him in his last start.

Struck him out on three pitches. Jeter went hitless in four at-bats, only lifting the ball out of the infield once.

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