boston.com Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe
DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Are the stars aligning for Boston's best pitcher?

SAN DIEGO -- Josh Beckett sure looks like the starting pitcher for the American League in the 2007 All-Star Game. He beat Jake Peavy and the Padres, 4-2, with eight innings of stellar work yesterday, improving to a major league-best 11-1.

There was something different about Beckett when he got to spring training this year. He was a little amused at the attention showered on Daisuke Matsuzaka and Curt Schilling. It's like he had a little secret.

Go ahead, follow Dice K with those 200 cameras. Make a big deal about Curt's blog and his contract. I'm the best starting pitcher on this team.

Beckett never said those words, but I bet that is what he was thinking. He is, after all, a 27-year-old, 6-foot-5-inch righthander with a World Series MVP on his résumé. He's got the best stuff on the team. Anybody with a bat can tell you that. He's also cocky. Downright nasty. He's been special since his earliest days in baseball and he knows it.

It had to hurt his pride a little last year when he came to the AL with the big reputation and gave up a whopping 36 homers to go with a Wasdin-esque 5.01 ERA. It wasn't a terrible season, but Beckett didn't dominate the way he's supposed to.

He didn't want to talk about any "change" after striking out eight Padres. Standing in front of his cubicle, Beckett was the same as he was on the mound: hardheaded and uncompromising. He won't give in.

The man is 11-1 with a 3.07 ERA and still has two more starts before the All-Star Game. He has surrendered only five homers in 91 innings. So what's the big difference between this year and last year?

"Luck," he said.

No, seriously, we pressed. What did he decide after his first year in the AL?

"I came into spring training wanting to throw all of my pitches for strikes," he deadpanned. "That's what I've done. That's what I've learned."

Pressed a little more, he admitted some differences between the leagues.

"You can get away with more in some ballparks in [the National] League," he said. "And the hitter in the eight-hole in the National League is not the same as the hitter in the eight-hole in the American League. In the National League you have the pitcher leading off a lot of innings. There are no free innings in the American League."

Sox catcher Jason Varitek, who hit a monstrous homer onto the beach in right-center field, expanded on the theme.

"He's gotten to know the league and get more comfortable in the environment," said the captain. "We utilize his changeup more. He's able to mix things up. He set out in spring training to utilize that weapon."

Translation: Beckett is not trying to blow away every hitter the way he did when he first came to Boston.

"He's got that exploding fastball and the good breaking ball keeps them off balance," manager Terry Francona said. "He pitched today for us the way he has all year."

Good thing. The Sox didn't figure to score a ton of runs against Peavy, who has allowed only one homer in 105 innings this year. The Beckett-Peavy matchup marked only the third time in big league history that a game featured opposing starters with nine or more wins and one or fewer losses. It happened in 1997 when Roger Clemens (11-1 with the Blue Jays) faced Atlanta's Denny Neagle, who was 9-1. And who among us could forget when Bill Bernhard (12-1 with the Phillies) matched up against Iron Man Joe McGinnity (12-1) in 1900 with Vin Scully making the call from the broadcast booth?

The grinding Red Sox lineup staked Beckett to a three-run lead with a raft of cheap hits off Peavy in the third. San Diego answered with a pair in the fifth, but -- with the tying run on third base -- Beckett fanned the Padres' best hitter, Adrian Gonzalez, with a hellacious curveball to end the inning.

"It was a 3-2 game," said Beckett. "I didn't want to waste what the guys had given me."

He lasted three more innings. Beckett was up to 105 pitches after seven, but there was no discussion about taking him out, even though he was scheduled to bat in the top of the eighth. He wound up lining into a double play, then retired the Padres on one hit in the bottom of the inning before passing the torch to the indomitable Jonathan Papelbon.

If everything stays on schedule, Beckett would be working on his normal four days' rest when the first pitch is thrown in the All-Star Game in San Francisco. Has he given that any thought?

"I've got to make the team first," he said. "They haven't even named it yet."

Good answer.

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

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES