THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Beckett back on mound, in fine form

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / March 9, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett grew up in the Florida Marlins organization, playing together for five years. They were righthanders with boundless talent and stubborn natures.

Beckett was traded to the Red Sox after the 2005 season, two weeks before Burnett signed a free agent deal with the Toronto Blue Jays.

Beckett helped the Red Sox win the World Series in 2007, two years before Burnett did the same for the Yankees, the team he jumped to after leaving the Jays.

“Josh and I aren’t close friends, but we’re friendly,’’ Burnett said recently. “Our careers have followed the same path in a lot of ways, and when we get together, there’s a lot to talk about. We understand each other.’’

Now Beckett and Burnett are together again. Not as teammates, but as pitchers coming off the worst seasons of their careers.

How the 30-year-old Beckett performs will likely determine whether the Red Sox’ rotation is of championship caliber. The same is true of Burnett, 34, and the Yankees, to an even larger degree, given their apparent lack of depth.

“It’s one of those things where everybody expects us to bounce back,’’ Burnett said. “But I know Josh and I know what a hard worker he is. He’s going to go back to being a great pitcher. He’s too proud not to.’’

Beckett continued his spring reclamation yesterday, pitching 3 2/3 strong innings in a 3-2 split-squad victory against the Houston Astros. He allowed one run on three hits with one walk and four strikeouts.

His performance was better than those numbers indicate. Two of the hits could have been ruled errors, the first coming on a misplayed popup that went for an RBI double and the second on a dropped ground ball.

What counted most was that Beckett threw 56 pitches after missing his last start recovering from a mild concussion. His curveball was particularly impressive.

Beckett ignores statistics in spring training, knowing his job is to get through his starts healthy and get ready for the season. After last year, that is of particular significance.

A strained lower back led to shoulder problems and a two-month stay on the disabled list in 2010. Beckett finished 6-6 with a hideous 5.78 earned run average. He allowed 38 earned runs in 42 innings against the Yankees and Rangers, the two teams that met in the American League Championship Series.

As Beckett struggled, Burnett was 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA for the Yankees, pitching so poorly that he was skipped in the first round of the playoffs.

Burnett’s issues were more mechanical than medical. But he knows how Beckett felt.

“When you’ve had success before and your body doesn’t respond the way it used to, the frustration gets to you,’’ Burnett said. “It’s the worst feeling.’’

Beckett does not like to reflect on last season. But he acknowledged that the injury led to other problems.

“There are definitely some mental things,’’ he said. “I’d say a large majority of it is physical, but they crisscross a little bit. Mentally you have to remember yourself being healthy because a lot of times when you look back, all you have is the last thing you did and if you weren’t healthy, that’s what you remember.’’

Even when Beckett returned from the disabled list in late July and was deemed healthy, manager Terry Francona never could be sure what to expect.

“I don’t think he ever got on track,’’ said Francona. “He was fighting it. It kind of snowballed and he was never able to build any momentum going in the right direction.’’

Beckett changed his winter workout routine to strengthen his back, and the results have been clear in camp.

“I feel different just walking around, more stability than anything,’’ he said. “It’s not that you feel like you’re stronger, you just feel a little more stable. Maybe ‘balanced’ would be a good word for it. Balance is huge in pitching and it keeps me healthy.’’

Burnett laughed when asked if he would be rooting for Beckett.

“No, we need to beat those guys,’’ he said. “But I do have faith in him. He’s tough and he’s not going to let what happened last year happen again. I think we both know how big this season is for us.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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