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Better secondary pitches now in mix for Beckett

AL starter Dan Haren (left) and the Red Sox' Josh Beckett chat during a workout yesterday. AL starter Dan Haren (left) and the Red Sox' Josh Beckett chat during a workout yesterday. (JED JACOBSOHN/GETTY IMAGES)

There's been no mystic revelation. No new Texas-gyroball trick pitch. No re-engineered mechanics. Josh Beckett shakes his head when reasons are proffered about why he's been on a monster run ever since his first outing in April.

"I'm pretty much doing everything the same," insists the Red Sox righthander, who's carrying a 12-2 record into his All-Star Game debut tonight in San Francisco. "There's not a whole lot of rocket science going into this."

The essentials for pitching success haven't changed since Cy Young was on the hill. Throw all your pitches for strikes, get ahead of the hitters, and keep your fastball away from the middle of the plate. Beckett has done an impressive job of that during the first half of the season, and lavish help from his free-swinging mates hasn't hurt.

"Some days, you're going to get a lot of run support, some days you're not," shrugs Beckett, who has by far gotten the best offensive support on the team. "But it's nice when you get a lot of runs and they make it easy for you."

Most nights, four would have been plenty, since Beckett has allowed three earned runs or fewer in 12 appearances and is carrying a 3.44 ERA. That's significantly better than last year, when his ERA soared to a career-high 5.01. His home runs, a career-high 36 last year, are down to six so far and his walks, a career-high 74 then, are a more modest 21. "The guy I heard people talk about last year and saw on video, I don't see that pitcher," says Sox pitching coach John Farrell.

This one is still a battler with a 96-mile-an-hour fastball who can blow batters away. "He beat the Yankees in the World Series," reminds one American League scout. "He's always had that dominating-type stuff. He's a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, and there's only a handful of guys in the league like that."

This season, though, the 27-year-old Beckett has grown craftier and more patient, using his full repertoire. "Josh has allowed himself to go deeper into games by being more effective with his pitches," says Tampa Bay outfielder Dustan Mohr, who played for the Sox last year. "He's using what he needs when he needs it and not just relying on one thing and flashing the other things."

Last year, Beckett concedes, was "a learning experience," figuring out how to pitch in a league with a designated hitter and in an intimate, angular ballpark where a misplaced fastball quickly lands on Lansdowne Street.

"The AL is a more offensive league," says third baseman Mike Lowell, who came to the Fens from Florida with Beckett. "You get to the 8-hole in the National League with the pitcher on deck and it makes things a lot easier."

Coming to a baseball-mad town that all but greeted Beckett with a brass band blaring and floodlights glaring created heightened expectations. The adjustment, he insists, was smooth. "I came in here and people welcomed me with open arms," he says. "I had some great teammates. I don't think it was difficult at all."

Still, there was pressure to perform, and sooner rather than later. "When players change organizations for the first time, there's a tendency to try to impress in your new surroundings," says Farrell, who played for three clubs in his major league pitching career.

Beckett made a huge impression last season, posting a 10-3 record by July and beating the Yankees in his return to the Bronx. But when things went south on him during the second half of the season and his command vanished, it wasn't pretty. "Hitters would spit on his secondary stuff," says Farrell, "and wait on the fastball."

Beckett ended up going 6-8 for the remainder of the season, including ugly losses to Oakland (15-3), the Yankees (13-5), and Tampa Bay (11-0). Nobody had to tell him what the problem was. His curveball wasn't working and he was leaving heaters in the middle of the plate. But Beckett kept forcing the fastball and watching it sail Wallward with unsettling frequency. "If he doesn't locate his fastball," says catcher Jason Varitek, "he gets hit around like anybody else."

Beckett was a bulldog, his admirers always said, but he also could be bullheaded. "Last year I think I used the word 'stubborn' ," says manager Terry Francona. "And I said that at some point we'll be raving about that."

So the idea for this season was to preserve Beckett's strengths -- his doggedness, his competitive fire, his work ethic, his relish of the big stage -- while making him more of a savvy mixmaster on the hill. That meant sharpening his secondary pitches, the breaking ball and changeup, to make his fastball even more of a weapon. "It's allowed him to be more 'unpredictable' ," says Farrell.

A modest shift of Beckett's plant foot toward third base produced more of a hook on his curveball. And his changeup has been nasty. When Beckett struck out the side in the first inning of last week's decision over the Devil Rays, two of the Ks came on offspeed offerings. "It's a hard changeup," observes the AL scout. "He'll throw his fastball 95-96 and his change 87-88. Some guys don't throw their fastballs 87-88. The location and sink of the changeup is very good."

Beckett's evolution, observers say, was clear from his first bullpen session in spring training. "He's harnessed that self-confidence," says Farrell, "and not let the bravado take him out of what makes him good." If the difference wasn't noticed then, it may have been because all eyes were on Matsuzaka, the $100 million man, which gave Beckett the luxury of going about his business largely off the screen.

"It allowed him to focus on getting ready for the season," says Lowell. "Last year, Josh was the big hype, the big acquisition. In a baseball town like this one, they were not going to let him be an OK starter. They wanted Cy Young. He was going to be the greatest pitcher in the world. Everyone wanted to know, how are you going to do? He doesn't have to answer those questions this year, and I think that's a good thing."

From the first triumph at Kansas City, Beckett was locked in, winning his first seven starts until an avulsion-not-a-blister put him on the disabled list and cost him two outings. But he came back humming, limiting the Indians to three hits in his May 29 return, and went on to go 9-0, the first Boston pitcher to manage that since Roger Clemens in 1986.

"It's nice to be able to go out there and know I can throw all my pitches for strikes," Beckett says. "Being in a routine, preparing myself the same way between starts." Having been around the league once hasn't hurt. "More so than anything else, he's got a year under his belt now," says Varitek.

It's not as if Beckett hadn't seen pinstripes or faced a hulking DH before. "But even with interleague play, one look or nine looks is a big difference," says Lowell. And Beckett hasn't lost his mental file catalogue on National League hitters. With the notable exception of the 7-1 flogging by Colorado in his first loss last month, Beckett has owned the senior circuit, going 7-1 since he arrived here.

"I think the best game he pitched was in San Diego," muses Farrell, referring to the June 24 matchup with Jake Peavy that produced a 4-2 victory. "A meeting of two of the premier starters in major league baseball, a tremendous environment, two teams leading their respective divisions. It was an elevated stage and Josh elevated his game. He relishes those opportunities to rise above."

The difference so far this season is that Beckett has been able to dial things down a notch and still be effective. "Just slowing it down a bit," he says. He's in a comfortable place now, familiar with the league, the town, and the lyric bandbox on Yawkey Way. Midway through last season, Beckett signed a three-year, $30 million extension that will keep him here at least through 2009, and he recently bought a $2.69 million condo in the Ritz-Carlton Towers.

"I don't think familiarity ever hurts," says Francona. "But I think the way he's pitched, he could do it in any ballpark." Indeed, Beckett's record away from the Fens this season (6-0, 1.71 ERA) is the league's best. If he has become the No. 1 starter on the league's No. 2 staff, it may be because he's learned not to think beyond today's game.

"You can't get too far from tomorrow," Beckett says. "I know it sounds like a cliché and it is a cliché. You can't go out there thinking four or five days ahead. It's pitch by pitch. You have to do that as a team and do that as an individual."

The Sox are 53-34 and Beckett is on his way to his first 20-win season and, possibly, his first Cy Young Award. Tonight, the man who was the World Series MVP at 23 takes the mound by the Bay to face his fellow All-Stars after getting more votes than any other AL pitcher.

So he took some advice from All-Star veterans and made sure that writer's cramp wouldn't affect his delivery. "I went this morning," Beckett said yesterday, "and signed all my autograph stuff at the stadium."