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Star in fixed position

After accepting responsibility for a down 2010, Beckett worked hard, and the results have shown

The Red Sox’ Josh Beckett, who rebounded in the first half to post an 8-3 record and 2.27 ERA, gestures during practice yesterday for the All-Star Game. The Red Sox’ Josh Beckett, who rebounded in the first half to post an 8-3 record and 2.27 ERA, gestures during practice yesterday for the All-Star Game. (Jeff Haynes/Reuters)
By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / July 12, 2011

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Josh Beckett owns a ranch in south Texas that is roughly a quarter of the size of the entire city of Boston. It was where he retreated to last October to contemplate what had been a disaster of a season.

The Red Sox gave Beckett a lucrative four-year contract extension during the first week of the season then watched him slowly crumble. As his earned run average soared, lingering back pain turned into a two-month stay on the disabled list.

By the time Beckett returned in late July, it was too late. Other injuries led to the Sox falling out of contention and he could do little to help stop the slide.

The final numbers were hard to read. Beckett was 6-6 with a 5.78 ERA, the worst of his career. He missed a dozen starts because of injury and on four occasions could not get through five innings. Beckett was an inconsistent, unreliable pitcher on a third-place team.

“Oh, he was [ticked],’’ manager Terry Francona said. “Josh is a proud guy.’’

There were ample excuses, starting with the back injury that led to shoulder problems. The Sox also used a jumble of catchers and had a leaky defense.

But as the season ended, Beckett admitted the fault was his alone.

“Finally he really started to take responsibility for what had happened instead of always looking for some other reason,’’ general manager Theo Epstein said. “He said, ‘This is on me. I have to go fix it.’

“Often times at the end of the year, guys are just looking to get away and forget everything that happened. Then it comes down to somebody’s unwillingness to accept mediocrity. For Josh, refusing to be ordinary is a big part of who he is. That’s a foundation of his success. He was really focused on accepting responsibility and standing up to the challenge that was ahead.’’

Beckett’s response is being heard throughout baseball. The righthander is 8-3 with a 2.27 ERA and has helped lead the 55-35 Red Sox to the best record in the American League. A player in seeming decline a year ago has returned to the All-Star Game and is set to pitch an inning or two tonight.

Specific motivation When Beckett returned to his ranch to figure out how best to rebuild his career, what drove him was not fame, money, or shiny statistics. He has had those and more since coming out of high school. The motivation could not be that superficial.

“It came from my teammates,’’ Beckett said. “Nobody wants to be the guy who lets everybody down. Those are the guys competing with you. That’s the most difficult thing for me.

“I can deal with people saying, ‘You suck’ or this or that. But it’s tough to look your teammates in the eye every day and you feel like you’re part of the problem and not part of the solution.’’

The easy explanation for Beckett’s success this season is improved health. Once he returned to Texas last fall, Beckett changed his offseason conditioning program to strengthen the muscles in his back and abdomen. Better fitness has helped the velocity and movement of his pitches.

“You can’t pitch with a sore back,’’ catcher Jason Varitek said. “Josh was never really himself last year. But he has that crispness back now.’’

Beckett, who turned 31 in May, also made a commitment to adjust how he pitches.

For much of his career, Beckett overwhelmed hitters with his fastball. Now he has learned the value of changing speeds and locating the ball. It’s the kind of shift that is necessary the deeper a pitcher gets into his career.

“He’s more of a pitcher and he relies more on command and less on power. It’s been a process to accept that,’’ Epstein said. “When he gets in trouble now, he doesn’t just reach back for as much velocity as possible. He calms himself down and focuses on executing a sequence of pitches.

“That’s a real maturation. I think he has a real good perspective on himself and his place in the game.’’

The practical application of that philosophy has been Beckett’s willingness to stick with his curveball and develop it into an out pitch. Now with two strikes on a hitter, Beckett has more to choose from.

“It’s much more consistent,’’ said Blue Jays manager John Farrell, the former Red Sox pitching coach and one of Beckett’s mentors. “Last year, that was a pitch that kind of came and went. Now Josh can spread the strike zone.

“You’re adding another pitch the hitter has to contend with and it’s an offspeed pitch. He throws that in the 70s and then can step on his fastball and throw it 94. It adds a whole different dimension.

“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody more driven and hard-working. You can see Josh has put in the work and when it’s all clicking, he’s one of the dominant pitchers in the game.’’

Conceding the need to adjust, even just a little, wasn’t an easy step. Along with talent, what has made Beckett so good over the years is self-confidence. But it has been nearly eight years since Beckett sneered at New York and beat the Yankees to clinch the World Series for the Florida Marlins.

“I wouldn’t be where I’m at without being stubborn,’’ Beckett said. “It gets in my way sometimes, but if I wasn’t stubborn things wouldn’t have worked out the way they have for me.’’

Said Francona: “Josh is who he is and that’s what makes him so good. I don’t want that to change. But he’s also getting older and he’s not the same person he was. That’s good, too.’’

Maturity on display Not coincidentally, the on-field maturation has come in conjunction with changes in his personal life. Beckett, once a determined bachelor, married longtime girlfriend Holly Fisher in January. The couple is now expecting its first child.

“I think I did the right thing by waiting until I was absolutely sure who I was marrying,’’ said Beckett, whose parents are divorced. “She fits me perfectly.

“The times, they are a-changin’, just like Bob Dylan said. That’s me. I want to be a great husband, that’s the most important thing in my life right now. Now we have a baby on the way and I want to be a great dad. I’ll have to figure out some way to also fulfill my obligations to the Red Sox, too.

“Baseball may not be the most important thing in my life anymore. But it’s still very, very important.’’

Varitek, who has caught Beckett more than any catcher in his career, has noticed the transition. The angry young man he always had to calm down is growing up.

“I give Holly the credit for that,’’ he said, laughing. “Not Josh.’’

Beckett also has come to regard Boston as the perfect place for him to pitch. His personalized “JB’’ cowboy boots may look out of place on Newbury Street, but Beckett now counts New England as much of a home as Texas.

“I love playing here, although sometimes it would be nice to just go to dinner and be left alone,’’ he said. “The fans, the organization, everything. I’m not saying other teams don’t take care of their people. But the Red Sox separate themselves by doing whatever it takes to make your job easier.

“I can’t imagine going somewhere else to pitch. This really has been a great thing for me.’’

There are still moments, however, when Beckett forgets the lessons he has learned. One came in Philadelphia on June 28.

In the sixth inning, Beckett shook off an offspeed pitch called by Varitek because he was sure he could blow a fastball past Shane Victorino with two outs and a runner on first.

Beckett reared back and fired, then watched the ball sail over the fence in right field. The Phillies went on to a 5-0 victory.

“Pretty [expletive] stupid,’’ he said. “See what I mean? Stubborn.’’

But Beckett has won his two starts since. Now he’s an All-Star, a Cy Young contender - perhaps the most important player on the Red Sox roster now that rotation mates Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are on the disabled list.

“I’m very, very happy. But I want more,’’ Beckett said. “I can’t make up for last year, I know that. But I know we can do some great things this year. It’s special to be a part of that.’’

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

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