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JACKIE MACMULLAN

With icy efficiency, Beckett took command

Yes, yes, we know Dice-K is throwing tonight, but before you immerse yourself in yet another worldwide spectacle with far-reaching international significance, please pause for one moment and admire the body of work submitted by a 26-year-old Red Sox pitcher from Spring, Texas, on a biting, breezy Opening Day that appeared hell-bent on debunking Al Gore's Oscar-winning environmental theories.

Josh Beckett, often overshadowed in spring training amid the Daisuke Matsuzaka mania that overtook Fort Myers and beyond, seized the moment in his 2007 home debut and reminded us just what he can be when he mixes his pitches and throws strikes.

A dominant winner.

In this case, one who gave up 1 run and 2 hits over 7 innings, and 0 walks and 0 home runs.

Start with the fact that Beckett retired the first six batters. End with the fact that he recorded outs against the final 15 batters he pitched to, and only three of those outs were fly balls.

Beckett struck out Ichiro Suzuki, one of the smartest contact hitters in the game, three times. He threw 61 of his 84 pitches for strikes, and while a healthy dose were indeed fastballs, he also caught the Mariners gazing at his changeup and curveball. Throw in the fact that he was placing his power pitch all around the plate -- or, in the words of catcher Jason Varitek, "a couple of tilts up and down and in and out" -- and you had a dominant performance in a 14-3 victory, albeit against a team that had not played for four days because of inclement weather in Cleveland.

After two starts this season, Beckett stands 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA. He has struck out 13, and while he walked four against Kansas City April 4, he hasn't allowed anyone to take him deep yet.

No one -- least of all Beckett -- needs to be reminded that he served up 36 home runs last season, more than double his previous career high of 16 in 2004 with Florida. There were numerous theories as to why Beckett was so susceptible to the long ball: The switch to the American League was hurting him, he was relying too much on his fastball, he was tipping pitches, his offspeed stuff wasn't quite offspeed enough.

Varitek said Beckett made it a priority to get his changeup back this spring.

The Mariners noticed.

"He was very impressive," said losing pitcher Jeff Weaver, whose lack of command only accented Beckett's strong outing. "He was painting his fastball on both sides of the plate. He was throwing his changeup for strikes. He had the curveball going. All of that keeps the hitters off balance and prevents them from sitting back and waiting for the fastball.

"In the American League, it's all about changing speeds and throwing strikes. You do that and you're going to win a lot of games."

A subdued Beckett acknowledged after the game that the Red Sox were at an advantage playing a team that had been languishing for days, unable to get in any workouts, never mind games.

"It's tough to go that many days without being able to throw or anything, especially long toss and going through your program and everything," he said. "I definitely think it took a toll on them when it came time [for the pitchers] to be able to pound the strike zone. I mean, you can't go through our order and walk guys. You'll get burned 100 percent of the time."

Beckett speaks from experience. His other blemish from 2006 was his maddening habit of walking batters, a career-high 74 of them.

Command was not an issue yesterday. He worked the count to three balls on only two occasions: to Jose Vidro in the first ( he ended up grounding weakly to first base) and Raul Ibanez in the second (another grounder to first).

"Very, very impressive, from start to finish," offered manager Terry Francona. "He stayed with the game plan. He didn't let the score waver his concentration."

It's hard to imagine Beckett pitching better, but we have seen glimmers of such dominance before. Remember last July 9, when Beckett spun a four-hit masterpiece against the Royals? In that game, he was on the winning end of a 1-0 decision, striking out seven and walking none. It was against that backdrop that Francona casually mentioned the team had signed Beckett to a three-year, $30 million extension.

Last Sept. 21, en route to notching his career-high 16th win, Beckett blanked the Minnesota Twins for eight innings, giving up just six hits and no walks in a 6-0 blowout. You are forgiven if you don't recall that outing. The Sox had long imploded by that point.

The only damage Beckett incurred yesterday was in the third, when Kenji Johjima and Yuniesky Betancourt tagged him for back-to-back hits. One run came across as Beckett induced a routine ground ball by Jose Lopez, but he escaped further damage by striking out Ichiro on three pitches and coaxing Adrian Beltre into a harmless fly ball to center.

Beckett is only the second US pitcher to strike out Suzuki three times in a game (the other was Tim Hudson). Ichiro is batting a career .100 (1 for 10) against Beckett.

"He's a very good pitcher," Ichiro said through a translator. "I haven't faced him many times, so it's hard for me to evaluate him."

Mariners first baseman Richie Sexson had no trouble doing the honors. He said Beckett did what quality pitchers are supposed to do: capitalize on a big advantage.

"Once he got the lead, he got even tougher, and his stuff got even better," Sexson said. "Believe it or not, he was actually trying out some stuff. He had his confidence rolling, so he was working on some of his offspeed stuff. He threw me a nasty changeup on my last at-bat."

Sexson was the final batter Beckett faced. By then, he had mowed down 15 in a row, striking out the side in the sixth. Sexson, who swung and missed on the aforementioned changeup, struck out to end the seventh, signifying the end of the workday for the pitcher from Spring, Texas.

"The [layoff] didn't help us," conceded Sexson, "but I think even if we had played [Monday], he still would have had pretty good stuff. You just have to give the guy credit."

We're happy to do that. Dice-K will rule tonight at Fenway, and the drama as he faces off against countryman Ichiro will be palpable.

Wonder if he can strike him out three times.

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

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