THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Beckett comeback gets off to a great start

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By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / April 8, 2009
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Josh Beckett gutted his way through last October, valiant yet diminished by injury, a fitting lasting image after a frustrating and largely mediocre season. The Red Sox anointed him their No. 1 starter for this season because, despite what happened last year, they have seen and they know what he is capable of.

"He was on fumes," manager Terry Francona said. "We all know that. But today he wasn't."

Beckett's classic Opening Day start yesterday, the highlight of a 5-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, dashed the images of last year's weakened ace and reminded all how good Beckett can be at full capacity. In seven innings, Beckett gave as dominant a regular-season performance as he has in a Red Sox uniform. He allowed one run on two hits and three walks while striking out 10.

The outing bubbled with promise that he has morphed into the 2007 Beckett, the pitcher who experienced no health problems and nearly won the Cy Young Award. Starting on Opening Day for the first time with Boston, Beckett carried momentum from his sterling spring training and announced himself as the team's ace, not with words but with the lightning bolts he fired through the chill.

"You think about" starting on Opening Day, Beckett said. "That's something that you're always striving for, to get to that point in your career. It's awesome."

Beckett's 1-2-3 opening inning, which included two strikeouts, betrayed his emotions. "I had to control myself as far as adrenaline," he said. Dustin Pedroia's first-inning home run calmed Beckett. Watching it fly over the Green Monster, "you feel like you don't have to be that perfect," Beckett said.

Beckett's fastball, from the first inning to the seventh, hummed in the mid-90s, topping out at 96 miles per hour, a velocity he reached on his first pitch. He sprinkled in the changeup that he honed during spring training and buckled Rays batters with his curveball.

Of all the ways to measure Beckett's dominance, the best might be this: He did not allow a hit from the windup. Against the 18 batters he faced with no one on base, Beckett struck out nine and walked two.

As great as he was, Beckett said, "I don't think I was perfect by any means." He lost the feel for his curveball in the third inning, when he walked the eighth and ninth batters and Carl Crawford's drive to deep center scored the only run he surrendered. Beckett allowed three of the first five batters he faced out of the stretch to reach base.

But his scant struggles also allowed for a full display of his power. Akinonri Iwamura led off the sixth with a walk, and Crawford belted a double that put runners on second and third with no outs. The Sox clung to a 4-1 lead. The Rays' 3, 4, and 5 hitters awaited.

Beckett had saved some of his most merciless pitches. Evan Longoria popped up behind the plate. Carlos Pena struck out looking at a chest-high, 96-m.p.h. fastball, his third strikeout of the day. Pat Burrell chopped to third.

Beckett walked off the mound, expressionless. "That," Francona said, "was impressive."

Beckett struck out at least 10 for the fourth time in 91 starts with the Red Sox. Of course, he has the potential to do that every time he climbs the mound. But other forces, either his condition or injury, have prevented Beckett from fulfilling his promise with the Red Sox aside from the 2007 season. Take away 2007 and Beckett is 28-21 with a 4.56 ERA with Boston.

"I can only tell you from afar, but Josh Beckett has got the makeup of one of those guys you just ride," John Smoltz said. "He's had some injuries, and he's had some issues with his fingers that he has had to deal with. For a guy who's been lights out at a time when you want to be lights out, the season from Game 1 to Game 162, I think people are looking for things for him to accomplish that most people think he should have accomplished already. People don't understand how hard that is, whether it's a Cy Young, winning 20 games. It's a very difficult thing.

"I think in these next few years, you'll see it all come together for him. He's got everything you want in a power pitcher. He's fun to watch. If I had to teach somebody the power mechanic throw, next to Roger Clemens, he's right there as far as a guy who gets in position to deliver what I'd call a perfect pitch."

Beckett's first start of the season suggested the year it all comes together may be this one. Francona said all spring Beckett reminded him of the 2007 Beckett. Yesterday only reinforced that.

"We've got a long way to go," Francona said. "But watching the way he's throwing is big."

Adam Kilgore can be reached at akilgore@globe.com.

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