Beckett counting on getting ahead

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / April 5, 2011

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CLEVELAND — Josh Beckett was the least reliable starter on a third-place team last season. It was embarrassing for him to finish 6-6 with a 5.78 earned run average and any criticism was justified.

If Red Sox fans thought he was awful, so did Beckett.

“I had some physical issues and there were times I couldn’t pitch the way I normally do,’’ the righthander said. “But that said, you still have to go out there and compete and I didn’t do that often enough. I was terrible plenty of times. I can’t defend that and I shouldn’t. It happened and I can’t change it.’’

But Beckett rejects the idea that last season was a neon sign with blinking lights telling him he had to change his style of pitching or risk further embarrassment.

Sure, he turned 30 last year. He also landed on the disabled list for two months with a bad back. But that cocky kid from Texas with a high-octane fastball isn’t about to be replaced by somebody trying to get by with guts and guile.

“I got some of those questions in spring training and I couldn’t believe it. Thirty? That’s when people hit their wall? Really?’’ Beckett said. “I feel like the stuff is still there. I’m not throwing 86 and 87 and hoping for the best. That’s just not the case.

“I guess I feel differently than other people see me. I can’t help what their perception is going to be. But if people want me to pitch differently, I don’t know what to tell them other than I don’t need to do that. I can still pitch the way I’ve always pitched. I’m going to go after the hitter like I always have.’’

The first test of that confidence comes tonight when Beckett faces the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. Relegated to the fourth spot in the rotation, Beckett starts his season needing to be the stopper he once was. The Red Sox are an alarming 0-3, having given up 26 runs in three games against the Texas Rangers over the weekend.

Now Beckett must do what Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Clay Buchholz could not and give his team a chance to win. The Indians are 1-2 but scored 20 runs in their series against Chicago.

“What do I expect from Josh? I expect him to be that pitcher we all know he can be,’’ pitching coach Curt Young said. “We need that.’’

Beckett had an odd spring training. He gave up 28 hits and 15 earned runs over 25 1/3 innings. But he walked just four, struck out 19, and showed good velocity with his fastball.

“To some degree he was in the strike zone too much,’’ an American League scout said. “But he has more life on his pitches than he had last year. You could see that.’’

In his final outing, against Houston on Wednesday, Beckett allowed one hit without a walk over five scoreless innings.

“I’m ready to go,’’ he said. “I don’t know that I’ll be more excited about my first start than I would be for my second. I’m not an excited guy. I get anxiety. I’m just ready for this season to start.’’

When last season was over, manager Terry Francona left Beckett alone rather than sit down as he did with other players and discuss offseason goals.

“I think his pride took a beating last year. I think he feels like he has a lot to prove. He just had a miserable year. It happens,’’ Francona said. “We let him go for a little bit. We all felt he needed to get away.’’

Francona has managed Beckett since 2006 and knows his personality well. The last thing Beckett needed was another conversation about what happened. Beckett never has found his way forward by looking back. In his mind, dwelling on the past is a waste of time.

“I can’t do anything about last year. If I sat around and complained about it, that wouldn’t get me anywhere,’’ he said. “I try not to think back on things. I would say that sometimes I’ve done that in the past, where I motivate myself from something negative that happened. But that generally doesn’t help me.’’

Beckett returned home and adjusted his training program to strengthen the muscles in his back. Beyond that, no major concessions were made. Beckett arrived at spring training feeling better than he had in years, the issues that affected him last season having faded away.

“I don’t want to go through that again,’’ he said.

The back injury and subsequent shoulder pain left Beckett in a constant state of recovery. Instead of following a four-day routine of workouts and side sessions between starts, he conserved his strength.

“Bullpens were basically nonexistent because I had to save that energy to pitch in the game,’’ he said. “I’m normally out there two days after I pitch but I had to save my bullets. You can get away with that for one start but after three or four times, there is always something you need to work on. I was just surviving.’’

Beckett would have preferred the Sox played last night. But with the team getting a day off, he channeled some excess energy into a workout, then waited.

“I get 12, 13 hours away from a start and I just want to be out there,’’ he said. “I’m ready to go by then.’’

That the forecast calls for temperatures in the 40s with a chance of rain is fine.

“I’ve done that before,’’ Beckett said. “The way I feel, I just want to get on the mound again in a real game and pitch. This is a new year for me and I can control what happens now. Last year is over.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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