CLEARWATER, Fla. -- For a moment, after 252-pound Ryan Howard had thrown down his glove and raised his arms, challenging 222-pound Josh Beckett, it looked as though the two might go. Power pitcher vs. power hitter, with bat and ball nowhere in sight.
Perhaps Beckett realized he was in over his head, even if he wouldn't acknowledge as much (''I wasn't too worried about that," he said later). Perhaps the heat of the moment passed. Regardless, the scene yesterday here at Brighthouse Networks Field provided a glimpse of the intensity bottled inside the new Red Sox ace, whose camp, to that point, had been amazingly nondescript.
The situation: Howard, who clubbed 22 homers in 88 games last year as NL Rookie of the Year, launched a ball to center in the sixth inning with a man aboard and the Phillies behind, 3-1. Howard was slow out of the box, watching in flight what had the chance to be his team-record 11th spring homer. The swirling wind held the ball up, and Adam Stern parked himself under it just shy of the warning track. Beckett, displeased with Howard's sauntering, let him know it.
''He was jogging after a pop up," Beckett said. ''It's not like I wanted to fight the guy. I wanted to make a point. You look like a jackass whenever you hit a ball like that and you're pimping it and you're out. I'm kind of about respecting the game. Even if it is a home run, I don't think it's the right thing to do. I'm not the type of guy to not say anything.
''I was just expressing my concern with the way he's playing the game. He didn't do that last year. He won Rookie of the Year, he hit a bunch of home runs, I guess you get one year in the big leagues and things just change."
Howard's take: ''See, I'd hit it, and at the contact point I didn't know where it went. If I was going to do something like pimp it or whatever, he'd have known."
Beckett spoke his piece and, Howard said, ''For me it was over. I really wasn't thinking about it anymore."
But, when Howard went out in the top of the seventh to play first base, Beckett, standing in the dugout, kept hurling words his way.
''That's where I handled it wrong," Beckett said. ''That's probably where I should have been a bigger man. I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's my fault."
Howard, on what he heard Beckett yell: ''He's like, 'Fly ball.' He threw in some curse words and called me a couple names. I was like, 'It's over,' but he started popping back off."
And that's when Howard abandoned his position, crossed the foul line, and walked toward the Sox dugout. On the way, he dropped his mitt and spread his arms, clearly willing to oblige if Beckett wanted to come on out.
''I mean, he started walking toward the stairs," Howard said. ''I wasn't going to be a punk about it. But if he was going to come up there and we was going to do it, we was going to do it."
Beckett reached the top step, with thick Wily Mo Peña (245 pounds, minimum) two steps behind him. The other dugout began to clear. Even the Sox bullpen door swung open. Out came Rudy Seanez, with the rest of the relievers a good 30-40 yards behind him.
But Seanez wasn't needed. Nothing more ensued, other than a few glares, and the herding of players back to their respective 'pens and dugouts. Beckett, of all people, was due to bat at that point, and the 9,893 in attendance probably would have paid the price of admission all over again to see him hit. But, he didn't, because he'd thrown 96 pitches. Willie Harris pinch hit for Beckett, who called it a day after six rather encouraging innings.
He did allow nine baserunners (6 hits, 3 walks) but fanned 6 -- four of them looking -- while allowing only two runs. He was throwing a particularly unfair backdoor two-seam fastball that accounted for at least one of his backward K's.
''You execute pitches like that, they're not looking in that location, that's what's going to happen," Beckett said. ''I felt intense. I felt focused today. Days when you have good stuff you probably shouldn't give up any runs.
''I have to get the walks down. I had too many walks today, but everything else was positive."
Beckett, who was throwing 94-95 miles per hour the first time he pitched this spring, appears healthy. When asked how his throwing shoulder -- the one diagnosed with tendinitis last fall -- feels, he abruptly answered, ''It feels fine. My velocity has been the same. No problems."
''The one big thing we really wanted to see is have him look like he's healthy," manager Terry Francona said. ''And I think everyone would agree that when he rears back, he's not nursing it up there. He looks great."
Beckett, in three big league starts this spring, is 2-0 with a 5.14 ERA (14 IP, 8 ER), with 5 walks and 10 strikeouts. There is no game scheduled for Friday (his next turn), so he'll take his final practice run in a minor league game, then take the ball April 5 in Texas as the No. 3 man in the rotation. He believes he's ready for the season and all that it will bring.
''It's a 162-game Packers season, that's what I've heard," said Beckett.
Yesterday's showdown with Howard was a nice warmup.
''I'm not going to take nothing away, the dude's a good pitcher," Howard said. ''His stuff was working nice today. But that's just uncalled for. Let it go."
Beckett said he will. The Sox and Phillies face off twice in the regular season (May 19-21 at Philadelphia and June 23-25 in Boston) and, Beckett said, ''Maybe we will have a beer."
Would he apologize?
''I don't know if I'd apologize," he said. ''I'd talk to him about the situation."
When asked about the series still to come, Howard said, ''Am I concerned at all? Not really. If it happens, if it goes down like that, it goes down."