Unlikely backstory of Beckett's no-hitter

Every time Josh Beckett has had success this season -- and Sunday’s no-hitter in Philadelphia was hardly his first positive stride in what’s been a remarkable two months for the veteran -- I think back to a conversation Feb. 19 in a quiet corner of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ spring training clubhouse.

Nobody was really paying much attention to Beckett back then.

He was an aging, rehabbing pitcher who had been, frankly, pretty awful the last time anyone had seen him on a major league mound, back in the early months of 2013. The team had insured itself heavily in case things didn’t work out. It had signed Paul Maholm the day pitchers and catchers reported, giving the Dodgers five starters even without Beckett, largely because Beckett was such an iffy proposition.

And that wasn’t just the Dodgers’ view. It was Beckett’s, too.

The previous July, a surgeon had removed a small rib near Beckett’s right shoulder, alleviating a condition known as thoracic outlet syndrome, the same ailment that ended Chris Carpenter's career. In April and May of that year, Beckett had pitched despite numbness in his fingers, a result of the rib impinging a nerve.

So, back on that February afternoon, after an encouraging early bullpen session, Beckett was still waiting for bad things to happen.

“I don’t think you can help but to expect it to come back,” he said. “Basically, I’ve got to keep riding it out, ride it until it’s not good anymore.”

And, three months later, what a ride it’s been, culminating in Sunday’s remarkable performance, the first no-hitter of the season and of Beckett’s career, the first for the Dodgers since Hideo Nomo in 1996, the first against the Philadelphia Phillies since the St. Louis Cardinals’ Bob Forsch did it in 1978.

Of all the times for it to happen for Beckett, at this point in his career, 10 months from surgery, with a fastball that has lost most of its sizzle, is beyond surprising. It’s practically baffling. Beckett ranks a solid fourth among Dodgers starters most likely to throw a no-hitter, behind Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu.

Beckett was quick to credit his fielders for helping make the 21 outs that weren’t strikeouts in Sunday’s game, in which Beckett threw 128 pitches and got six strikeouts. He also thanked his family for helping him get through the long rehab and trying times after surgery. At some point in his postgame comments, he’ll probably get around to thanking A.J. Ellis.

Ellis wasn’t even the starting catcher Sunday, Drew Butera was. But this rebirth-at-the-age-of-34 thing wouldn’t be happening for Beckett without Ellis.

The Dodgers catcher had plenty of time on his hands back in April as he rested up following knee surgery. One day, he approached Beckett in the visiting clubhouse at Chase Field armed with a small stack of papers. The studies show, Ellis said, that hitters simply couldn’t hit Beckett’s curveball. So, why not throw it more. Become more of a kill-them-softly type pitcher, a far cry from the Texas slinger Beckett had been in his 20s.

Now, let's revisit that February conversation, for a moment. Beckett said then that, because doctors had removed the rib, he could get a higher arm angle when he threw his curveball, giving it a more devastating downward tilt. A new weapon was born and it has been a boon to Beckett’s career, not to mention to the Dodgers’ chances.

On Sunday, Beckett threw 40 curveballs and 20 changeups, meaning nearly half his pitches were soft. His fastball averaged 91.6 mph, though it ticked up as the game went along, probably as a result of Beckett realizing what he had at stake.

For the season, Beckett is throwing his curveball 31 percent of the time. The last time he had a fastball that topped 93 mph, in 2011, he threw the curve 16.9 percent of the time.

So, yeah, it’s not quite accurate to say Beckett won Sunday with diminished stuff. His fastball is diminished, but his confidence in his off-speed stuff is as high as it has ever been. And what’s amazing is that, even as he continued to dominate Phillies hitters, he was waiting for reality to strike back.

That's how improbable this whole thing was.

“You’re thinking about it the whole time,” Beckett said in his postgame interview with SportsNet LA. “I don’t know why there’s that unwritten rule not to talk about it and stuff. I was joking about it from the fourth inning on, but like I said, I was waiting for them to get a hit, too.”

They never did, with Chase Utley taking a fastball right down the middle to end it and then walking back to the dugout without a word. Beckett is keeping them guessing all right. In fact, he’s keeping us all guessing. Given where it started in the spring, who knows where this story is headed.