2003 MLB Playoffs
Beckett Bests New York
October 27, 2003
Three days rest. That's all the baseball world could talk about before Game 6, but Josh Beckett's brilliant complete game shutout now has that same contingent talking about what the Yankees are going to do with the 157 days rest they have until next opening day. What went wrong with New York? Why couldn't they steamroll past what appeared to be a less talented Marlins team?
It's not what went wrong with New York, but what went right with Florida. Ten games under .500 late in May, the Marlins fired Jeff Torborg, hired Jack McKeon, called up Dontrelle Willis, and the rest is history. McKeon and Willis lit a spark under the team that burned until the October sun set on a south Florida parade. Since May 23rd, the Marlins had the best record in baseball, so their victory lap around the league is only an upset to those who haven't been paying attention. Nevertheless, teams at the highest level are separated by so little that a bounce of the ball or a strategic slide can be the difference between winning and losing. That's why, statistics be damned, Jack McKeon went with Beckett while he had his opponent on the ropes.
Fox and the local newspapers posted the numbers enough to know that starting a postseason game on three days rest has not been historically successful, even for the greatest hurlers. Ignoring the numbers, Josh Beckett pitched almost flawlessly, making his manager look like a genius. Before the world shifts its thinking on the subject, Beckett himself mentioned after the game that he only threw 142 innings in the regular season (due to an injury) and his arm still felt fresh. He was throwing more pitches per start down the stretch, so his arm was probably in its prime while other pitchers with more innings were starting to fatigue.
Forgetting about pitch counts for a minute, Beckett has thrown less than 250 combined innings the past two years, largely in part to recurring blisters on his pitching hand which keep him out of the rotation occasionally.
In other words, McKeon wasn't risking long term injury to Beckett; he was simply going with the pitcher he felt had the best chance of winning. The real question would be Beckett's effectiveness on short rest, but the 23-year-old answered that question emphatically.
Do McKeon's postseason moves and regular season inspiration make him smarter than the other managers? Of course not. If that were the case, it wouldn't have taken him until the age of 72 to win his first World Series. What McKeon did better than the other managers was match his personality with that of his teammates. From Piniella to Torre to Baker to Cox, there are plenty of ways to get the job done, and plenty of personalities that can do it. In 2003, with Jack McKeon and the well balanced Marlins, Florida found the magical combinations of young and old, talent and determination, fun and hard work, and they displayed themselves with perfection on the grandest stage in baseball, culminating with a World Series Championship.