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Sights to behold

A healthy changeup for Beckett

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / February 26, 2009
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - There was nothing to do yesterday but pitch. No worries about an oblique strain or a problematic elbow, or any of the minor to major health concerns that limited Josh Beckett throughout the 2008 season. So it was that he could discuss how refreshing it is to have a new year and a clean bill of health.

"It's a lot easier to focus on what you're trying to do when you're not dealing with those little nagging things that end up being exterior distractions and take your focus away from what you're trying to do," Beckett said.

It was just last year, in his last time on the City of Palms Park mound, that Beckett felt a twinge in his back after he threw his first warm-up pitch in his first Grapefruit League game. It kept the ace from heading to Japan with the team, and started off a season in which it felt as if he could never get himself right. There were the back spasms, which caused a problem with his hip, then the elbow scare, then the oblique strain.

Then rest, once the season was over.

"You can't go out there and not think about what happened last year in my first outing," Beckett said. "I definitely thought about it some coming in. It's like, 'Oh, is this going to happen again?'

"It was nice to get out of there, just feel good."

Beckett was able to work on his changeup, a normal part of spring training, which was welcome for the pitcher. Though he almost didn't throw it at all in 2007, and not as much as he could have last season, Beckett would like to change that this season. Of the 22 pitches he threw yesterday - 15 for strikes in a two-inning outing against Boston College - he estimated seven or eight were changeups in the Red Sox' 7-1 victory.

"I'm coming into spring training really wanting to throw my changeup more during the spring to get a feel for it," Beckett said after he struck out two and allowed no hits. "It's a big feel pitch for me. The more I throw it, the more I can command it, the more I can take speed off of it, add a little speed to it. It's a lot more of a feel pitch than my curveball is. I want to try and get as many of them in now as I can; that way I don't have to still be catching up with it in the regular season."

If Beckett doesn't get a feel for the changeup in spring training, he tends to stay away from it in the regular season. While he relied on his fastball and changeup in the National League, with the curveball as more of an out pitch, he got away from that with the Sox.

But he got a chance yesterday, as he said he will try to do all spring.

"I think some of [the BC] hitters probably thought it was his fastball 'cause it's firm," manager Terry Francona said. "Until he threw his fastball."

So the focus was not on his health, it was on the health of his changeup. It was a welcome difference from last season.

Beckett did say the first time he picked up a ball this offseason he didn't feel right. It was actually to the point that he called the training staff and discussed having an MRI before the oblique got better after a couple of days of throwing.

But it was surely not a problem yesterday. No, yesterday was all about adrenaline. It's not something that happens much while throwing live batting practice to teammates with cages and screens and a relaxed atmosphere at the player development complex.

That was all gone. It was just Beckett and the BC hitters - and a chance to start a season anew, without worrying about pain or discomfort.

"He had so many momentum breakers last year," Francona said. "It was one thing after another and it was just hard for him to ever mount that streak where he could get real hot, get in a groove. But it would be nice to keep him out there for a bunch of starts. He's important to us. There's no getting around that. We want him to lead our staff. We've told him that. I think he's at a point in his career where he relishes that and he deserves it."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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