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Dan Shaughnessy

Moving pitcher

Refusing to dwell on abysmal year, Beckett pushes onward

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By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / February 16, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Not to heap any additional pressure on the man, but Josh Beckett stands to be the most important Red Sox player as we look toward this season of great expectations.

Sure, Kevin Youkilis is the soul of the Sox. Dustin Pedroia has been an MVP. Adrian Gonzalez could be the answer to Mark Teixeira. Carl Crawford brings new dimensions. Jacoby Ellsbury (would it have killed him to come here a couple of days early?) can be a star. Jon Lester is one of the best pitchers in baseball. Jonathan Papelbon hopes to return to his old dominant self.

But Beckett can be the difference. These Sox aren’t going where they want to go if Beckett submits another stinker like 2010.

If Beckett were a movie star, 2010 would be his “Gigli.’’ He went 6-6 with an ERA of 5.78 in 21 starts. He spent two months on the disabled list (back), and six months trying to explain why he looked like a man throwing batting practice.

“I don’t know if ‘embarrassing’ is the right word, but you’re not happy,’’ he said yesterday after Sox pitchers and catchers concluded their first grueling (two-hour) workout of spring training. “ ‘Ashamed.’ Or whatever. It’s not a good feeling leaving the season knowing that things could have been better for the whole team if you would have just done your part.’’

It still boggles the mind. A World Series MVP when he was 23, a 20-game winner who almost singlehandedly pitched the Sox to a world championship in 2007, Beckett last year at times looked washed up. And he was only 30 years old. The Yankees owned him. New Yorkers sat on his cut fastball and made him pinstripe cannon fodder.

Beckett got off to a bad start in April, hurt his back on a wet field at Yankee Stadium in May, and never recovered. And all this came right after he signed a four-year, $68 million contract extension.

Did he try too hard to justify the money?

“I don’t think so, but who knows?’’ Beckett allowed. “I got sick during spring training, and then when I felt like I did get caught up, I felt like I still had to do more.’’

“I think he tried too hard at times last year,’’ said manager Terry Francona. “It kind of ganged up on him after a while and got to be too much. It was so hard for him and it shouldn’t be that tough.

“He fought things physically and never was able to get on a roll. Now he’s got a fresh start, so let’s use what happened last year to our advantage.’’

“I thought I should have been performing better, no doubt about it,’’ added Beckett, a renowned hardhead. “I try not to let things affect me like that. I’m human, though, and I do let things like that affect me.

“We’re not talking about effort levels. You’re trying to make up for two bad starts in one pitch.’’

It was off-the-charts bad. Coupled with the injuries, Beckett’s demise torpedoed the Sox season.

“Clearly a big part of it was his injury,’’ said general manager Theo Epstein. “He probably didn’t handle things as well as he can. That said, I like the way at the very end of the year he took responsibility for it. He owned his performance and said, ‘I’m going to go fix this.’ ’’

Beckett worked to strengthen his back during the winter. He resolved to stop forcing the cutter and go back to mixing up his pitches. He also tried to put 2010 out of his mind.

“I can’t change last year,’’ he said. “I’ve just got to do the best I can this year. My dad says, ‘Throw the broken mirror away.’ You can’t change anything that’s already happened.

“As frustrating as 2010 was, I’ve got to move on. This is 2011; 2010 is in the books. It’s not going to change.’’

His manager and GM seconded those emotions.

“The thing I told him was to just be Josh,’’ said Francona. “I think it’s easy for him to forget sometimes how much his teammates look up to him. That he can be one of the best pitchers in the league. It’s not always going to be perfect. Just be Beckett and go out there and fight and battle and just be Beckett.’’

“He went out and had a really good winter,’’ said Epstein. “We have to remind him how good he is and also remind him that it’s a new year.

“He’s in a good frame of mind. He’s a smart guy, self-aware. It doesn’t always mean he can correct things in real time. It’s hard during the season sometimes to make adjustments. Sometimes situations are such that you need a winter to process things and make improvements.

“He’s very important. With the emergence of Lester and [Clay] Buchholz, getting a typical Josh Beckett year from Josh probably makes us an elite rotation.’’

“I’ve always wanted to be on a team that won 100 games,’’ said Beckett. “I don’t think I’m more determined, but this team has a chance to do something really special like that and I think that’s where some of the determination comes from.

“I’m not trying to change last year with 2011. I don’t want anybody to look back and say, ‘Well, 2010 was pretty [expletive], but 2011 was really good.’ That’s not me.’’

It’s Feb. 16 and Epstein is talking about an elite rotation and Beckett is talking about 100 wins. Don’t you just love spring training?

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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