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Dan Shaughnessy

Beckett mixes attitude, aptitude

Josh Beckett's future is so bright, he has to wear shades. He was 20-7 last season. Josh Beckett's future is so bright, he has to wear shades. He was 20-7 last season. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / February 18, 2008

FORT MYERS, Fla. - He is still only 27 years old. And he is the ace. No doubt about that anymore.

Josh Beckett was an afterthought when the Red Sox opened their spring camp last February. Daisuke Matsuzaka was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and a legion of new reporters trekked to the godforsaken end of Edison Road to chronicle every move of the Japanese righty. Meanwhile, Curt Schilling - Terry Francona's Opening Day starter - made news with the announcement that he planned to pitch again after 2007. And Jonathan Papelbon still was slotted to be in the starting rotation.

It was easy for Beckett to get lost. Just the way he likes it. While the cameras followed Dice K and the microphones recorded Schill and Papelbon, Beckett went about his business with the silent fury that has driven him since high school.

At the end of the year, Beckett was The One. He was the best pitcher in baseball. An ace who could not lose. He started four postseason games and dominated each time. Had the poor Colorado Rockies been able to win the fourth game of the World Series, Beckett would have stared them down and put an end to it the next night. There was no doubt.

"He wasn't tired at the end," said Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "He stayed focused on his next pitch throughout the season, and if he'd pitched one more time in the World Series I think it would have been the same thing."

Schilling gets a lot of well-earned credit for pitching well in October, but Beckett is a modern mound version of Reggie Jackson. In 10 career postseason games (nine starts), he is 6-2 with a 1.73 ERA. Batters have hit .159 against him in the playoffs. Among those with 70 or more postseason innings, only Christy Mathewson and Mariano Rivera have lower ERAs than Beckett.

Beckett came to the Red Sox (along with Mike Lowell) from the Marlins during Epstein's walkout after the 2005 season, and even though Hanley Ramirez has triple-crown potential and Anibal Sanchez already has thrown a no-hitter, you can't find a Sox fan who is unhappy with the deal. It's a trade you'd make again and again.

His first year with the Sox was a head-scratcher. He already had a World Series MVP on his résumé and his mound weaponry was obvious to anyone standing or sitting near home plate when he pitched. Despite sensational stuff, Beckett gave up 36 homers in 2006 and his ERA was a whopping 5.01. He had trouble locating his curveball. He tried to throw too many fastballs past the strong AL lineups. His final stat line, by his own admission, was "embarrassing."

There was nothing to be embarrassed about in 2007. Beckett went 20-7 with a 3.27 ERA, won the All Star Game, then dominated in October. He cut the gopher balls to 17 in '07. Now, because of the Sox' trip to Japan, he's on tap to start two of the first three games of the season. He is the successor to Roger Clemens, Pedro Martínez, and Schilling. He is the No. 1 starter for the Boston Red Sox, and the Sox want to make sure he doesn't try too hard to duplicate last season.

"For me it's just being consistent like I was last year," Beckett said after yesterday's workout. "Whether it be from pitch to pitch or outing to outing or day to day or hour to hour. Just focusing on the task at hand. I'm just trying to be consistent like I was last year. Last year was a good year. The team goals were met, personal goals were met, so it was a good year to look back on. That's what you want to do, be consistent like that."

Beckett is a lousy sound bite. He's not interested in the media madness that is so much a part of the Red Sox experience. He's got attitude. He's nasty. He's special and he knows it. It's part of what makes him a great pitcher.

"You actually scout that kind of attitude," said Epstein. "It's OK for a pitcher to be a little bit of a [expletive] on the mound."

The attitude flashed when a reporter asked Beckett if he regretted signing for a "discount" (Beckett makes more than $10 million per season, but he would command much more on the open market).

"No," he said. "Are you upset that I signed for a discount? No, I'm not upset. I'm not worried about that right now. I've still got two years left on my contract, and then an option year, so I'm not too concerned with it."

He's not complaining about Japan, either. Yet. Barring injury Beckett will make the long flight to Tokyo March 19, and there are guys in New York (hello, Mike Mussina) still complaining about the Yankees' trip to Japan in 2004.

"We just get started a week early," Beckett said. "Usually you have one more spring training start, but usually you're going six or seven innings in that start. My last spring training start, basically will be in Japan after a 20-hour flight, but I'm not really changing anything."

That's about all he had to say. And we probably won't hear from him again until he beats the Oakland A's Opening Night (Opening Morning to you) at the Tokyo Dome.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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