Beckett is back to stopper status

Gordon Edes
Yahoo! Sports

BOSTON – John Smoltz, who shares the same May 15 birthday as Josh Beckett, can testify that it is better to watch Beckett pitch a season opener than pitch against him.

Four years ago in Miami, Smoltz, then the ace of the Atlanta Braves, lost 9-0 on opening day to Beckett and the Florida Marlins.

Tuesday afternoon in Fenway Park, Smoltz, now the 41-year-old X factor on a Boston Red Sox staff that could be the best in baseball, watched in admiration as the 28-year-old Beckett smothered the Tampa Bay Rays on two hits and a run in seven innings while striking out 10 in a 5-3 win.

The most memorable pitch of the day was thrown by the gallant lion of the U.S. Senate, Edward Kennedy, who actually made two soft tosses to newly anointed Hall of Famer Jim Rice standing a few feet from him in pregame ceremonies, bouncing the first before finding leather with the second.

But in Tuesday's rematch of ALCS finalists, the return of Beckett's 95 mph fastball, the weapon that was absent when he faced the Rays last October while injured, was the pitch that signaled that the right-hander is ready to reclaim his preeminent spot in the Red Sox rotation.

"On an opening day, he looked like his old self, I thought," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We could just see it, as the game rolled along, he was going to be really good all day.''

The pitcher Smoltz saw Tuesday, he said, is a better version of the one he faced in the National League.

"Josh already has told me he's going to ask me a lot of questions,'' Smoltz said. "The 24-year-old Beckett was surrounded by about 10 to 15 other 24-year-olds [in Florida], and there was no real leadership to draw from over there. It was 'Here's the ball, go figure it out, and good luck.'

"Maturity is a word we throw around a lot in baseball. It's not really the maturity you usually think of. It's really the experience you learn as a pitcher. I think what Josh has learned to do, under some pretty extreme circumstances that weren't ideal, was finding ways to get people out.''

Beckett made like Bob Gibson when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2007, winning all four of his postseason starts, allowing four earned runs in 30 innings, and striking out 35 while walking just two.

But all those pressure innings in October may have taken their toll in 2008. Beckett strained his back in spring training and started the season on the disabled list, then returned to the DL in August with shoulder inflammation. The worst hurt came in a side session just before the playoffs, when he strained an oblique muscle. He was knocked around for nine hits and four runs in five innings against the Angels in a Game 3 start in the division series, then hit a nadir in Game 2 of the ALCS against the Rays, giving up eight runs – including three home runs – in 4 1/3 innings.

With his velocity down by nearly five miles an hour, he gutted his way through five innings of Game 6, allowing two runs on four hits in a 4-2 win that forced a Game 7.

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

Brad Penny was one of those other kid pitchers on the Marlins when they won the World Series in 2003. Everyone remembers that Beckett threw a shutout against the Yankees in the clinching game in the Bronx, but Penny left his mark, too, beating the Yankees twice.

"We were all pups,'' said Penny, who has rebounded from a lost season in Los Angeles to claim the No. 5 spot in the Red Sox rotation. "Josh and I were talking about that earlier, right after he got out of the game. We used to be the exact same pitcher – fastball, curveball, changeup. Now he's throwing a two-seamer, I'm throwing a splittie, you've got to do whatever you've got to do to get people out.''

In one respect, Penny said, Beckett is the same pitcher he was when they were together with the Marlins.

"He's always been pretty good in the big games, especially the playoffs or opening day. Whenever you needed him to be the stopper, he always came up huge ever since I've been around him.''

But there are noticeable differences, too.

"Josh in the weight room is a lot more serious about all his work,'' Penny said. "I met Josh when he was 19 years old. He was supposed to be the next Nolan Ryan. He had all the pressure in the world on him. I don't think he has that kind of pressure anymore.

Beckett threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of the 26 batters he faced. The only inning he struggled was the third, when he lost the feel for his curveball and walked two in a row, gave up a single to Akinori Iwamura and a sacrifice fly to Carl Crawford.

He was at his best in the sixth, after a walk and double by Crawford put runners on second and third with no outs. Facing the heart of the Tampa Bay order, Beckett induced Evan Longoria to pop out to catcher Jason Varitek, froze Carlos Pena on a 96-mile-an-hour fastball for strike three, and retired Pat Burrell on a tapper to third.

"I don't think I was perfect by any means,'' Beckett said. "I made pitches when I had to make them.''

After Beckett comes Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, Penny, and eventually Smoltz, if his rehab from elbow surgery continues to progress. The Red Sox bullpen is stacked – Jonathan Papelbon whiffed two in the ninth for his first save – and Clay Buchholz, who threw a no-hitter at 21, is waiting in the wings in Triple-A.

"I think that everyone we put on the mound,'' Beckett said, "has a chance to make the other guys very uncomfortable.''

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