|JOSH BECKETT Japan trip in question|
FORT MYERS, Fla. - An MRI of Josh Beckett's lower back showed no disk damage, the Red Sox said yesterday, but persistent discomfort in the area would appear to make it highly improbable that the ace will be ready to pitch the season opener against the Athletics March 25 in Tokyo.
"I was a lot more optimistic yesterday than I am today," said Beckett, who spent the morning receiving treatment in the trainer's room at City of Palms Park after a restless night caused by the discomfort in his back.
There's a chance that neither of the team's top two starters will be available for the first two games in Japan. Daisuke Matsuzaka's wife, Tomoyo, is expecting the couple's second child, and while manager Terry Francona expressed optimism that the timing may be such that Matsuzaka will be able to pitch - the baby is due March 19 - he also made it clear Matsuzaka has the club's permission to miss the start if circumstances warrant.
"There's nothing we have to come to a determination on today," general manager Theo Epstein said yesterday in Port St. Lucie, where the Sox and Mets played to a 1-1, 10-inning tie. "We'll just have to see how things play out over the next few days. We'll have two starting pitchers for the trip, we just don't know who they are yet."
Beckett has pitched just twice this spring, two innings against Boston College Feb. 28, then three innings in a B game against the Minnesota Twins last Monday. He was scheduled to pitch this past Saturday against the Marlins, but he felt back spasms after throwing his first warmup pitch and landing on some loose dirt, according to pitching coach John Farrell. Beckett left after throwing five more warmup pitches.
Beckett was encouraged by how his back felt when he came to the ballpark Sunday morning, but he was experiencing considerably more soreness yesterday. He said there was some discussion about an injection to reduce the inflammation but doctors ruled it out because they couldn't pinpoint the location of the problem.
"They basically told me that they couldn't find a spot to put the shot in there," he said.
"We've done a number of tests. There's nothing wrong with the disks, and I think that's what they wanted to make sure of. It's definitely a strained muscle or pulled muscle, whatever you want to call it. It heals when it heals."
Beckett said he expected to undergo more treatment this morning and did not know when he would be able to resume throwing.
"We're going to make sure it's completely pain-free," he said. "I can't even, really, if lying in one position too long, or sitting in one position too long or standing in one position too long, it kind of goes backwards. I've got to keep moving and stuff like that."
Beckett said doctors warned him Sunday that he might feel worse the next day. When it was suggested he may not pitch the opener in Tokyo, he said, "I don't know. We'll make those decisions as they come."
If Beckett cannot pitch, the Sox would have to reshuffle their rotation to get a starter on a timetable to pitch the opener. With less than two weeks to go, they would need to do so in short order, adjusting the schedule of Jon Lester, Tim Wakefield, or presumably Clay Buchholz, but Francona said it was premature to rule Beckett out.
"You're a little ahead of me," Francona said yesterday morning. "There's just no reason to make that assessment today. It just doesn't make sense. I don't have the answer. You guys are better at guessing than me.
"We just want to get him better. We usually err on the side of caution. We usually try to use good judgment."
Beckett, who said he never has had back issues, would not say whether the condition of the mound, which had been used in a simulated game Saturday morning, caused him to experience spasms.
"I'm not going to get into the blame thing," he said. "Everybody's doing their job. Nobody's job is any easier than anybody else's. I'm not getting into that."
Was there a misstep on the mound? "I'm not getting into that," he said. "It's nobody's fault. It's something that happens."
Epstein said the team also will consider how a 17-hour plane trip to Tokyo could affect Beckett's back.
"Right now it's literally a day-to-day thing," Epstein said. "We'll see how he feels. It's good news that it's a muscle issue and not a disk issue. We should gain more information every day and we'll chart an appropriate course with the big picture in mind. It's not ultimately the most important thing in the world that he starts Opening Day."
Normally, the Sox have to pare their roster to 25 players by Opening Day. This year, they have to cut down only to 28 by the Japan opener, but only 25 of those players can be active. The Sox must cut down to 25 by March 30, the last day of a three-game exhibition set against the Dodgers and two days before they resume playing against the Athletics in Oakland.
If a player goes on the 15-day disabled list before the Japan trip, the earliest he would be eligible to participate is April 3. That's an off-day for the Sox, after they play two games in Oakland, which means a player placed on the DL would not be eligible to play until the Sox go to Toronto April 4.
Gordon Edes reported from Fort Myers; Dan Shaughnessy reported from Port St. Lucie.