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Beckett will bring 'A' game to Toronto

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / April 2, 2008

OAKLAND, Calif. - The most important news involving the Red Sox yesterday came from 3,000 miles away - bigger than Opening Day II, bigger than any player on the current roster.

Josh Beckett was deemed ready to start his season after pitching a final intrasquad game at the minor league complex in Fort Myers, Fla. Beckett missed Japan. Who cares? He missed Oakland. No big deal.

He apparently is ready to pitch, according to manager Terry Francona, against Toronto Sunday, opposing Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay - one of the most formidable pitchers and teams the Sox will face this season.

This is no small bit of news, for Beckett is the biggest weapon that separates the Sox from the pack.

If there's a "filthy" pie chart for elite American League pitchers, Beckett gets the biggest slice. The only one who comes close is Halladay, who is a horse, of course, but hasn't been in position to pitch a big postseason game.

Yankee Chien-Ming Wang can win 19 games every season until the cows come home, and he won't be Beckett's equal.

C.C. Sabathia edged Beckett for the Cy Young Award last season but showed in the postseason that he is not in Beckett's league.

Tigers ace Justin Verlander, like Halladay, has the dynamic stuff to threaten Beckett's status, but until he does it, he must be considered a lesser.

The Angels have a deep staff, but nobody who can stay with Beckett, even the currently injured John Lackey.

With Johan Santana traded to the Mets, the Twins are void of such a pitcher, though Livan Hernandez has pitched big games in the past.

Scott Kazmir and James Shields are nowhere near that level in Tampa Bay.

Erik Bedard and Felix Hernandez are emerging in Seattle but are well below Beckett's status.

The White Sox' Mark Buehrle has won two games in the postseason but hasn't reached Beckett's level.

You can then start on the other league. In his heyday, Pedro Martínez was that guy (and maybe there's more to come). Santana, Jake Peavy, Brandon Webb, a healthy Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Roy Oswalt all pitch with guts.

When you have a guy like this - a Dave Stewart/Jack Morris type - you make sure you handle him with care. And that's what the Sox have done.

They understand that 17-hour plane rides in March can be avoided. They know that Beckett didn't have to start Game 1 or Game 3 or Game 4, for that matter. The Red Sox did a good job holding Beckett back and making sure he followed doctor's orders, which is not easy for someone so competitive. Beckett seemed to get the hint that he wasn't going to rejoin the team until he got his work in.

"It's going to be great to get him back here with the rest of the guys," said Francona. "I think he's missed being around and the guys have missed having him around.

"He's popular with his teammates because they realize how important he is to us, but we've done things the right way with Josh. I think that he can throw without any setbacks makes us all feel like we did the right thing."

While his teammates were battling major league players, Beckett was facing A ball and extended spring training hitters. He was taken deep by Yahmed Yema, which Beckett got a kick out of. If this were for real, Beckett may have buzzed the kid in his next at-bat.

Beckett, who suffered back spasms while throwing warm-up pitches before a spring game against Florida March 8, threw 64 pitches, 47 for strikes. He allowed five hits, had two strikeouts, and retired the final 11 batters he faced.

"I felt good," Beckett told mlb.com. "Everything was good. The most important thing is health. Any time you're coming out of spring training, that's what we try to do, and that's kind of what this is for me - trying to get out of spring training healthy."

Beckett's return will get everyone in their proper place in the rotation. Last night's starter, Daisuke Matsuzaka, has been playing the role of No. 1, in which he's out of place. Young lefthander Jon Lester has been the No. 2, also an assignment he's not quite ready for.

"We need Josh," said closer Jonathan Papelbon. "He's our No. 1. When you have a No. 1 like that, you want to make sure he's completely healthy so he can help you in the long haul.

"Holding him back was smart because we need him down the road more than we need him right now. It didn't hurt none not having him in Japan or here in Oakland. We need him to pitch big games. That's what he does for us as our ace."

When Beckett's back injury flared up, it looked ominous. No team ever wants to see its ace come off the mound before even throwing a pitch in a spring game. Backs are tricky, and even when the diagnosis was spasms, there was the fear that the problem would linger. Even now, there are no guarantees that a few weeks of rehab and a strengthening program will do the trick. Setbacks with backs are common.

But Beckett doesn't seem to be holding anything back. He drew rave reviews from the pitching coaches on hand, Goose Gregson and Ralph Treuel. The A ball hitters came away with a real understanding of what it's like to face the best big league pitcher.

Until someone knocks him off that perch, that's what he is.

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