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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Putting finger on a problem

My first instinct is to tell Larry Lucchino he can come out of hiding now. Acquiring Josh Beckett is exactly what the Red Sox need. The kid throws heat, he doesn't have control problems, and he's only 25 years old. Suddenly, a creaky starting rotation has sprouted all sorts of new life, and with it comes renewed hope for an intriguing 2006 season.

There is one thing about Beckett that gives me pause, however.

What's with the blisters? In the past four seasons, Beckett has been on the disabled list an astounding nine times, and even more astonishing, six of those trips were 15-day stints that were a direct result of blisters on his right middle finger.

This isn't the kind of blister you get when you show up to camp out of shape and your coach or manager runs you ragged to teach you a lesson. It's not the kind you get when you decide to play a game of pick-up basketball at lunchtime wearing your pink suede Pumas.

This is serious. A persistent blemish on Beckett's finger has almost derailed his promising career. Last season, he missed 15 days in June with a blister. In 2004, he went on the disabled list in May and again in July with the malady. In 2002, he landed on the DL in April, June, and August with the exact same problem: blister on the middle finger.

Having failed to locate a blister expert in the Yellow Pages, I put the question to former Marlins manager Jack McKeon.

''Those blisters were really frustrating," McKeon said. ''But not so much this past season. I think he had only one stint on the DL because of them. I know he spent a lot of time seeing different doctors about it, and they came up with some kind of remedy that helped him. I'm not exactly sure what it was. Some kind of medication.

''Blisters are tricky. People think that kind of injury is no big deal, but that's wrong, especially when it comes to pitchers. Sometimes the metabolism of certain players makes them prone to those things. And then there's the climate in Florida. It's always hot, and it's always sticky, so those fingers are always moist."

(Are you thinking what I'm thinking? It's not always hot at Fenway Park, particularly during those early April dates.)

I was hoping Red Sox physician Thomas Gill might let us in on some of his brainstorms about how to preserve the health of this coveted acquisition, who should be in the fold by the end of the week, but Gill politely declined to comment until the trade was official.

Celtics physician Brian McKeon is no relation to Jack McKeon, but he's seen his share of blisters.

''Our guys come up with chronic blisters on their big toes," he reported. ''That's an easier fix. We get them some orthotics or we fashion a pad or tape it for protection. It's a whole different story when you start talking about a pitcher."

McKeon has never examined Beckett, but if the righthander were his patient, what would he recommend?

''Obviously, it's an overuse problem," McKeon said. ''You have a few choices when that's the case. You can accept it for what it is and know he's going to miss chunks of time each year.

''Or, No. 2, you can determine which pitch is causing him the problem and tell him not to throw it anymore. Chances are, if he's a big league pitcher making millions of dollars for his ability to throw that pitch, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. So that means you have to get creative."

McKeon said he would consider applying pressure sensors to Beckett's fingers, have him throw the ball, then chart the results.

''That way, you can see what fingers endure the most pressure," he said. ''Considering his injuries have consistently been limited to the middle finger, you've probably already isolated the problem. But if you have data on what the other fingers are doing when he throws the pitch, maybe you can make a subtle adjustment to disperse the pressure."

Normally, a lubricant such as Vaseline could be helpful, but that would be forbidden under major league guidelines (see spitball in your manual). Taping the finger is an option, although that can often heighten the irritation.

''I'm thinking out loud here," Brian McKeon said, ''but what about a program designed to develop a permanent callus? Think about mowing the lawn after you haven't done it for a long time. If you haven't built up those calluses, you are going to get a blister.

''But if you find something abrasive, like a rock, or a stone, and build up a protective callus in that area, it could help.

''I might even consider injecting some kind of agent to cause scarring in that area. The only danger with that is you might take away his tactile sense, his feel for the ball."

The naysayers of this proposed Marlins-Red Sox deal argue that aside from the chronic blisters, Beckett has also experienced shoulder problems. He visited with Dr. James Andrews at the tail end of last season and was given a diagnosis of tendinitis, but otherwise a clean bill of health going forward. Yet durability questions linger.

''He'll be fine," McKeon said. ''I'm telling you, this kid is just starting to hit his stride. He's improved so much over the past couple seasons. His work habits, in particular, have changed considerably. He seems to have found himself a niche, and is dedicated to being good.

''Josh wants to be an All-Star. He's finally realized a little sweat and sacrifice is going to get him that success a lot quicker."

McKeon said he bumped into pitcher Matt Clement, who was once Beckett's teammate, and Clement commented on the righty's increased attention to conditioning.

''He asked me, 'What have you done with Beckett? You really have him working,' " McKeon said. ''I told him, 'I just laid it out to him what it takes to be good.' He was so young when he got to the big leagues. And when he got here, that was the style, not to [work hard]. That's what everybody else was doing.

''Well, he won't be satisfied with that anymore. He's going to be a 20-game winner. You'll see. I thought he was going to get there last season, but he had the blister, then the rib cage problem."

The numbers don't lie. For all his potential, Beckett has never thrown more than 178 2/3 innings in a season, and has never won more than 15 games. Let it be duly noted, however, that he reached those levels last season. Throw in a career high number of starts (29), a lifetime ERA of 3.46, and a World Series ring he clinched on the mound at Yankee Stadium in 2003, and there's every reason to be optimistic.

Toss the guy a stone. Build up some calluses. They tend to come in handy in a town like this.

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

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