The Yankees Are Still Missing a Josh Beckett

Since 2003, the Yankees and Red Sox have been about as even as two teams can be. New York holds a 50-47 edge during the regular season heading into their matchup Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium. New York has won the American League East three times to Boston’s one.

The Red Sox have elite hitters (David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez), the Yankees have elite hitters (Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano). The Red Sox have a top closer (Jonathan Papelbon), the Yankees have a top closer (Mariano Rivera). The Red Sox have promising young starters (Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester), the Yankees have promising young starters (Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy).

But the Red Sox have a pair of World Championships—and an ace in Josh Beckett. And it is a major difference the Yankees still haven’t countered.

“If there’s one guy you want pitching with the game on the line, it’s Josh Beckett,” Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis said as he dressed for Wednesday night’s game between the archrivals at Yankee Stadium.

Youkilis speaks from experience. Last fall, the Red Sox trailed the Cleveland Indians 3-1 in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series. Boston sent Beckett out to save the season—he responded with eight innings of five-hit, 11-strikeout pitching. The Sox eventually rallied to win the ALCS, and then swept Colorado in the World Series.

Beckett was arguably the biggest reason why. He fashioned a 4-0 record in the 2007 postseason, with a 1.20 ERA and an absurd 35-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 30 innings.

Of course, the Yankees were no stranger to Beckett’s postseason heroics. Back in 2003, when Beckett pitched for the Florida Marlins, he ended New York’s season with a complete-game shutout on the Yankee Stadium mound. Beckett had another monster postseason for Florida that year, a 2-2 record failing to do justice to a 42 2/3 innings, 47-strikeout, 12-walk campaign in October.

In fact, while Beckett was the physical manifestation that denied the Yankees a 40th world championship in 2003, it is their failure to produce a Beckett at the top of the rotation that has kept them from even returning to the World Series since.

In 2004, the Red Sox rallied from a 3-0 deficit to defeat the Yankees, largely due to the work of Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling. The Yankees countered Schilling in his famous “bloody sock game” with Jon Lieber. In Game 7, New York pitched an over-the-hill Kevin Brown.

In 2005, the Yankees, trailing the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim 2-1 in a best-of-five ALDS, send Shawn Chacon out for Game 4. Chacon actually won, and the Yankees caught a break when Angels’ top pitcher Bartolo Colon left Game 5 after one inning due to injury. But the Yankees had Mike Mussina on the mound years after he could be considered an ace. Mussina got bombed, and the Yankees went home.

In 2006 the Yankees used Jaret Wright (11-7, with a 4.49 ERA on the season) in an elimination game against the Tigers. Wright didn’t make it out of the third inning—the Yankees went home again, thanks in large part to eight excellent innings from Detroit’s Jeremy Bonderman—another ace the Yankees couldn’t match.

Last year, of course, New York’s failures came at the hands of Cleveland co-aces Fausto Carmona and C. C. Sabathia—while Chien-Ming Wang, who simply doesn’t strike out enough batters to be relied on as a true ace, got lit up twice by the Indians.

While in theory the playoffs are such a small sample of games that a team can get by without top-flight pitching, in reality, teams without it seem to always lose to the clubs that bring along the trump card of a dominant starter or two. The Yankees have certainly fallen victim to such teams—and when New York was winning four titles in five years back in 1996-2000, New York sported a large number of such pitchers, from David Cone to Andy Pettitte to Roger Clemens. Even David Wells and Orlando Hernandez, who don’t typically fit the designation, were each excellent postseason pitchers—Wells pitched 125 innings of 3.17 ERA ball during the postseason, while El Duque is 12-3 with a 2.55 ERA and 107 strikeouts in 106 October innings.

There is little to suggest that the 2008 Yankees have found their ace. While Chien-Ming Wang rolled to a 2-0, 1.23 ERA start, his strikeout rate (11 in 22 innings) meant that he allowed hitters to put lots of balls in play. As a result, his form is bound to be uneven. (Case in point: In his last start on Wednesday night, Wang allowed eight runs in four innings to see his ERA more than triple, to 3.81.)

Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina have been inconsistent—certainly, neither seems a good bet to be both healthy and effective enough to counter the top pitchers on other playoff contenders. Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy both may have future October brilliance in them, Hughes especially—but both pitchers have been showing their age so far.

Ironically, the best chance New York has for a legitimate No. 1 starter currently pitches out of the bullpen: Joba Chamberlain. Not only does Joba possess the arsenal of an ace, with four-plus pitches, he has also displayed the talent for excelling under pressure in his eighth-inning stints.

But with early-season struggles from Kyle Farnsworth and LaTroy Hawkins, it isn’t yet clear if the Yankees will follow their plan to move Joba to the rotation this season, and let their talented young bullpen arms, such as Jonathan Albaladejo, Edwar Ramirez, Ross Ohlendorf and others, compete for the spot.

If they choose to roll the dice with the current group of five, it is hard to imagine the New York clubhouse as relaxed as Boston’s was prior to Wednesday’s game. The Red Sox had Clay Buchholz on the mound, a rookie with five career starts to his credit, against New York’s Wang.

Even though Boston lost Wednesday, Thursday they had Josh Beckett starting and he shut the Yankees down, holding them to three runs over eight innings. Mussina, the Yankee starter, didn’t make it to the fourth inning. The Sox held on to win, 7-5.

“When you have one of the best pitchers in baseball going for you, you’re always optimistic about your chances,” Youkilis said.

That’s a luxury the Yankees haven’t afforded themselves—and they’re likely to find out it makes a difference again this October.

The Yankees Are Still Missing a Josh Beckett