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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Former can't-miss kid going unnoticed

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- A year ago, he was the new star in camp. Reporters begged for a moment of his time and he managed to avoid most of them. He was the centerpiece acquisition off a tumultuous offseason, a can't-miss kid with a World Series MVP (won in Yankee Stadium!) on his résumé.

Now he comes and goes and nobody notices. While Daisuke Matsuzaka makes news tying his shoes . . . while Curt Schilling elbows his way to the top of the news . . . while Manny Ramírez continues to make loud noise with his absence . . .

. . . Josh Beckett comes and goes and the poets down here write nothing at all.

Josh Beckett. Remember him? During the Theo/Larry/Gorilla mess of the winter of 2005-06, a team of Red Sox executives traded Hanley Ramírez (who would win National League Rookie of the Year honors), Anibal Sanchez (who would pitch a no-hitter), and a couple of other prospects to the Florida Marlins for Beckett, Mike Lowell, and Guillermo Mota.

It was an old-timey blockbuster deal and Beckett was the key player. Big (6 feet 5 inches, 222 pounds), cocky, and only 25 years old, Beckett was touted as a bona fide stopper. He was a guy who could anchor a pitching staff. He was a guy who pitched a shutout in the clinching game of the 2003 World Series when he was only 23.

One year ago, New England kids came here wearing Beckett's No. 19. They stood behind the ropes and shouted for his autograph.

Now nobody bothers him when he comes out of the clubhouse and goes to work at the Sox minor league complex. The cameras are all trained on Dice-K with the wide-angles reserved for Curt. Beckett can't even generate a good Whiner Line rant.

"I wouldn't say hardly anybody knows I'm here, but it's not that big a deal to me," Beckett said yesterday, sitting alone at his locker just after 7 a.m. "Last year was all about, 'How's the new guys going to do?' This year is the same thing, only I'm not one of those guys. I'm just going about my business and I'm doing the same things that I've always done in spring training -- take care of my stuff and hopefully get on the golf course by 1 o'clock."

Pitching coach John Farrell announced yesterday that Beckett will start against Northeastern University at City of Palms Park Thursday on the second day of spring games. Farrell would not say this means Beckett is slotted for the second game of the season in Kansas City, but unless the Sox decide to mix Tim Wakefield into the top of the rotation, Beckett will probably be the No. 2 starter.

"They put Tim between myself and Schill last year and it didn't work out too well," said Beckett. "I'll pitch when they tell me to pitch. I have no problem pitching the fourth game if that's what they decide to do."

Beckett's first season with the Sox was eventful and disappointing. He was 10-3 going into July, but struggled mightily in the second half. He finished 16-11 with a whopping ERA of 5.01. He gave up 36 home runs. Thirty-six.

We had all the answers, of course. Beckett was a victim of stronger American League lineups. He threw too many 97-mile-per-hour fastballs with nothing on them. He was stubborn. He tried to blow hitters away. He was a thrower, not a pitcher. He was hurt by too many opinions from multiple pitching coaches. He got passive once the Sox extended his contract (Beckett will make $30 million through 2009).

"That's just people making excuses," he said. "That's what weak-minded people do. I don't concern myself with those guys. I think what happened was just that my curveball command was off. It was an all-year deal."

He won't blame the pitch-calling.

"Jason [Varitek] makes suggestions and I either go with his suggestion or I come up with one of my own," Beckett said. "It's always the pitcher's fault. You can never blame the catcher because the pitcher ultimately makes the decision. Do I throw that or not throw that? Do I execute it or not execute it?"

The gopher balls?

"I think it was just location on the fastballs. No doubt about it.

"This league is definitely more difficult. You just don't have any holes in the lineups. But hitters 3-5 in the National League are the same as maybe 1-6 in the American League. Not many holes. You don't have that pitcher in there. It's definitely a different beast. It's a fun challenge, coming out and pitching in this league. I certainly wouldn't have signed an extension if I didn't want to be here."

And the ERA over 5.00?

"It embarrasses me," he acknowledged.

Then he came to his own defense and said, "But I did a lot of great things last year. I won 16 games. I made every start. Nobody else on our staff did that. I was that guy that I've always wanted to be. Every time he handed me the ball I went out there and pitched. Some good games and some bad games."

The good news is that Beckett did not suffer from the finger blisters that plagued him prior to 2006. The other good news is that he's still healthy and still can be tougher to hit than any Red Sox pitcher. Flying under the radar can be a good thing when you play in Boston.

Dice-K is the international rage. Schilling has his own radio show and will probably be Time's Man of the Year someday. Wakefield is still knuckling at 40 and Jonathan Papelbon is attempting to dominate from the start the way he dominated at the end of games in 2006.

But when it's all over, Beckett might wind up being the ace of Boston's celebrated starting five.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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