No longer an ace, Josh Beckett forced to adapt

PHOENIX – The fact is, there will be days when Josh Beckett hits a lot of bat barrels, and enough of them flush. The velocity on his fastball says so. Last season says so. Sunday afternoon said so.

It's part of the deal. Hang around long enough – and if it's not the years (he'll be 33 in May), it's the mileage (coming up on 2,000 innings) – the days get longer, louder and, perhaps, somewhat discouraging.

This is the time of your professional life when no one confuses you for the staff ace. You're a comfortable No. 3, maybe a No. 4. Paid like a No. 1, but without the requisite velocity or results. It's not a terrible life.

I got to thinking about Beckett while looking over what Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz were doing in Boston Red Sox camp. They have ERAs under 1 and, along with Jackie Bradley Jr., are a decent reason the Red Sox are feeling better about themselves.

Buchholz pitched well again Saturday in Fort Myers and afterward said, "It feels good to throw good. … Everything is rolling along now."

[Sources: Yankees to trade for Angels OF Vernon Wells, another $20M man]

Not long before that, sometime after he threw the last of six perfect innings against the Tampa Bay Rays, Lester said, "You're able to walk away and go, 'This stuff is really working. This is me.'"

Meantime, Beckett was here, getting knocked around by the Oakland A's and backing up a lot of bases. He gave up six hits (two of them home runs), three walks and seven runs in four innings. Through three spring starts, Beckett was right there with Lester and Buchholz, pitching well, gaining on April, feeling reasonably secure about rolling along and this being him.

He said he still is. He didn't command his fastball against the A's and his curveball was damn near useless. It's that fragile. Hell, even with the sneering fastball it's that fragile, and that's long gone. Beckett is pitching at about 91 mph, well off the beast he was in his prime. Now he's on that timeworn path to discover smart outs, which works for some and not for others but is usually humbling and always interesting.

Actually, Beckett said, he prefers the word "guile" to "smart," though in the end they mean the same thing: The fastball ain't what it used to be, so now what? I'm sure he'd love to believe like Lester and Buchholtz do, that the stuff of a couple years ago is in there somewhere and one subtle mechanical tweak from being freed.

He said he still talks to the two of them, or texts them, and surely shares in their enthusiasm. He adores John Farrell, whom he called "overqualified" to be a pitching coach or a manager ("He's a future GM," Beckett said), and doesn't doubt he aided in their pitching recoveries. Just a year ago, the three pitchers were together playing away from a forgettable September for the organization and preparing for what turned out to be a messy season for all of them. The manager was fired, the roster turned over, Beckett (along with others) was traded, and now Lester and Buchholz are rediscovering their way while Beckett looks to do the same.

For Beckett, that means working off his four-seam fastball, dusting in the two-seamer, separating the splitter from the changeup, and taming the cutter. He has pitches that move in every direction but up, and he's almost certainly working on that.

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In the end, Sunday's start wasn't much to look at, but it doesn't undo what Beckett had done in Dodgers camp before Sunday. He's been OK. As one scout behind the plate said, this is about what everyone saw from Beckett in September, when the bigger ballparks and thinner lineups sheared more than two runs off Beckett's Boston ERA. In L.A., he won't be a shadow of the guy who won 20 in 2007 (and four more in a shut-down postseason) or 17 in '09 or even 13 in '11; he'll be the guy who pitches behind Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. That seems fine by Beckett. In describing Sunday's imprecision, he was earnest and honest and humble. He put pitches where they should have been hit, and they were crushed. And now it's time to be better than that. More precise. More, I guess, guileful. He wasn't feeling well recently, and he granted a dose of antibiotics will do little for a man's two-seamer.

Thing is, it's been 50, maybe 75 starts since Beckett said good-bye to that fastball. Like most pitchers, he chased the lost velocity for a good while and got beat up doing it. Then he accepted it, or tried, and got beat up some anyway. So there'll be days like Sunday when he's a few inches right or left of guile, far from perfect, and the best you can say is Josh Beckett is still figuring it out.

It's not standing out there, a big ol' Texan with a big ol' fastball daring hitters to lean in, to guess away, to take that chance. It's just the new guy, learning a league, picking his way through a lineup, trying to miss bat barrels, finding a way out.

"I think you get there," Beckett said. "You get to where you can't bang your head against the wall for three or four years, getting your ass kicked every time."

And yet there'll still be days like that, too.

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