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JACKIE MACMULLAN

A method to Beckett's madness

Thirty-six pitches.

Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek wasn't scrawling the number in the dirt or anything, but he's been around the game long enough to know that his starting pitcher had thrown an awful lot of baseballs to the plate in the first inning.

The manager, Terry Francona, was likely keeping count in that analytical, numbers-oriented mind of his, but then, that's his job. When a front-line hurler starts putting up pitch counts that suggest the game should have advanced to the third inning already, you might need to start thinking about how deep he can go, and what kind of adjustments will be required on the back end of your bullpen.

The pitcher, Josh Beckett, refused to entertain thoughts of how many curveballs or fastballs he had wasted while he struggled to establish his command. He was too angry with himself.

''Hey," he explained, ''I'm mad at myself after I have a 1-2-3 inning."

He was clearly perturbed after his first outing on the mound at Fenway Park, too. Beckett is an emotional player; that has been evident in his first two appearances, in the form of a rebel yell or a fist pump after a big play. It is a delicate balance. What is viewed as an expression of joy in one dugout can often be construed in the other as showing up the opponent. This is a fine line Beckett will likely walk all season.

His penchant for expressing himself was in full bloom yesterday as he strode off the mound after finally inducing the necessary three outs in the first inning. He was, in a word, upset.

''I mean, he wanted to destroy the dugout after that first inning," reported teammate Mike Lowell.

It could have been a disaster. Beckett had given up three walks, including one to force home a run. The Toronto Blue Jays had loaded the bases, and Beckett found himself with a full count on Shea Hillenbrand, who had irritated Beckett moments earlier by beginning to jog to first base after Beckett's 3-and-1 offering, which the pitcher just knew was a strike. (Home plate umpire Jerry Layne concurred.)

So now it was 3-and-2, and Hillenbrand fouled off two pitches. Then Beckett came at him with some heat: 94 miles per hour heat. Just like that, the 36th pitch was enough. Hillenbrand's grounder rolled to short, and it was a textbook 6-4-3 double play.

Rebel yell. Fist pump.

The damage from those 36 pitches? Minimal. The ramifications of escaping the inning only one run in the hole? Gigantic.

Beckett would cruise through the next six innings of his outing without giving up another run, and his pitch count dropped like Enron stock. Inning two: 15 pitches. Inning three: 12 pitches. Inning four: 14 pitches. Inning five: 13 pitches. Inning six: 5 pitches.

That's right. Five.

''We had to force him out of there, and we didn't," lamented Toronto DH Lyle Overbay. ''In the early innings, when he threw his curveball, it wasn't even close. When that happens, you can lay off and look for a fastball. But as the game went on, he was throwing that curve for strikes. He has great stuff -- if he throws strikes. That's always what his trouble has been."

Beckett needed only 10 pitches to get through the seventh, finishing with 105 and retiring 18 of the final 21 batters he faced. His teammates are excited, but they are also curious. Their young ace has a career ERA of 4.59 in the first inning of ballgames.

He clearly takes the mound with an abundance of adrenaline and enthusiasm, but the trick is figure out how to channel all that energy. In his first career start for the Sox, last week in Texas, Beckett threw 23 pitches in the first inning. As he did yesterday, he then settled into a groove, retiring 12 of the final 13.

Francona said he wasn't tempted to send someone to the mound to calm his 25-year old righty yesterday.

''No," Francona said. ''Do you see him when he comes off the field? He almost tore my hand off. I don't want to go anywhere near him."

Asked about the emotional component of his batterymate, Varitek said, ''I'm learning." Asked to expound a little on what he meant, Varitek merely smiled and repeated, ''I'm learning."

Pardon the Blue Jays if they are impaling themselves with their own cleats this morning for not knocking Beckett out of this ballgame. They, too, made note of Beckett's emotions and expected to capitalize on them.

''You're hoping you can rattle the guy," said left fielder Frank Catalanotto, who was 0 for 2 with a walk against Beckett. ''You can see how emotional he is out there, and you're thinking you can work that to your advantage.

''But you can't. He settled down. Give him credit. He made the pitches."

When Beckett does lock in, he has positively nasty stuff. He can shatter your bat, as he did on a Vernon Wells liner in the sixth, or he can make you look downright silly, as he did to Aaron Hill in the fifth, when he coaxed Toronto's second baseman into flailing at a curveball for strike three.

By the time the game had ended, Beckett's arm was on ice, and his mood was serene. He understood the magnitude of gutting out that first inning, but just in case he didn't, Curt Schilling sauntered over and reminded him.

''Schill said that's what good pitchers do," Beckett said. ''They get through seven innings. Whenever you have an inning like that and throw something like 40 pitches, it's tough, but it also builds some character."

Lowell has been with Beckett before, in Florida. He has seen the fiery side of his young teammate and the results that can come of that intensity.

''Once he channels it and feeds off it when he needs to, that's when he can be very efficient," Lowell said.

''The important thing was trying to hone [the emotion] and using it the rest of the game," Varitek added.

Thirty-six pitches in one inning is hardly the model of efficiency, but the final results certainly fall into that category. Beckett is now 2-0 with an ERA of 1.29 in a Sox uniform.

Go ahead, kid. Yell all you want.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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