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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

For six innings, clearly a cut above

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Now what?

For six innings last night, Josh Beckett was every bit the pitcher the Red Sox hoped they were getting when they dealt for him last winter. He outdueled Angels rookie gunslinger Jered Weaver, allowing no runs on four hits and walking none while taking a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the seventh.

Then he was gone. In a flash. With a small cut on the left side of his right middle finger. Not a blister, he said.

``It's a concerning thing, having a cut on your pitching hand, especially me," Beckett said, after Jonathan Papelbon saved his 2-1 victory. ``That finger has always been an issue for me . . . It's bittersweet because we won, but it's a frustrating thing."

He had a bandage on the finger. Asked about making his next start, Beckett said, ``We've got to reassess that tomorrow."

Beckett said he first felt the cut while warming up before the bottom of the seventh. He walked Garret Anderson on five pitches to start the inning. When he threw two more balls to Juan Rivera, pitching coach Dave Wallace came out to the mound. A few seconds later, Terry Francona bounded out of the dugout with assistant trainer Mike Reinold. After an examination of Beckett's hand, Francona took the baseball from his big righthander and Beckett walked to the dugout. He was replaced by Mike Timlin.

``[Beckett] said, `I can't grip my curveball or my fastball -- other than that I'm OK,' " recounted Francona. ``It was time to move on . . . I don't think this is something that is going to cost him a start."

Throughout his career, Beckett has been plagued by blisters on his throwing hand. In 2006, he's been blister-free, but has encountered serious problems with gopher balls and other mound malfunctions.

The walls were closing in around him when he took the mound last night. He was winless in his last five starts with an ERA of 8.75 in his last four starts. He spit the bit in the big series with the Yankees at Fenway, walking nine and giving up nine runs in 5 2/3 innings of a 13-5 loss.

Last night was a different story for the man who was supposed to be co-ace with Curt Schilling this year. Beckett was downright masterful. He gave up only one run on four hits and two walks in six-plus innings. Best of all, 49 of his 70 pitches were strikes. But the abrupt exit gave Sox Nation new cause for alarm -- as if any more was needed.

Tuesday, the estimable Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, a scribe not given to hyperbole, wrote, ``Josh Beckett is to Boston what Jeff Weaver was to the Yankees: the ace that never was . . . Beckett's head isn't ace-quality. He looked like a raw high school pitcher on Saturday, paying no attention to runners . . . and continuing to get his fat fastball smashed around."

In the same article, Verducci quoted one of Beckett's teammates as saying, ``It's the same thing every time: Fastball, wham! Fastball, wham! Look at all the home runs he gives up."

Going into last night, Beckett led the majors with 32 gopher balls, and his ERA was a whopping 5.35. In late July, he signed a contract extension that will pay him $10 million a season for three years. His troubles started shortly after inking the new deal.

Sox third baseman Mike Lowell, who played behind Beckett for parts of five seasons with the Marlins, said, ``He usually doesn't give up that many home runs. He's trying to find consistency. I really don't know what it is and I'm not in a position to say, but he's got the ability to be an elite pitcher. He started pretty well this year, it's just been lately that he's struggled. Right now, I think he's searching to get back that form and we're going to need him. I don't think he fears the situation, which is a good thing."

The 2006 book on Beckett has been to sit on his fastball and ignore everything else. Big league hitters respect his curveball, but he's been unable to locate that pitch while hurling for the Red Sox, and his changeup is sometimes clocked at 90 miles per hour, which makes it the same as many pitchers' fastballs. Ever confident in his ability, he's been unwilling to back down while making the difficult adjustment to pitching in a league with better teams and better hitters. And no pitchers batting every third inning.

After he was boxed around by the Yankees Saturday, the 26-year-old pointed the finger at himself, referencing his own ``stupid stubbornness."

All of the above made for some extra weight for Beckett to lug out to the mound last night. The Red Sox and a desperate Nation (don't look now, but with the White Sox and Twins playing each other six more times, the wild card is looking pretty remote) were anxious to see Beckett turn things around as the Sox tried to win consecutive games after an abysmal week.

He passed the test, throwing first-pitch strikes to just about every batter. It was all going perfectly until a new variation on an old problem surfaced in the seventh.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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