In '09 debut, Beckett 'free and easy'
Veteran righty, Francona pleased with first spring appearance
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Unlike the last time he took the mound in a game for the Red Sox, Josh Beckett didn't need anti-inflammatories just to make it bearable. He didn't grimace with each maximum-effort offering, as was the case for Game 6 of the American League Championship Series against the Tampa Bay Rays.
The ace took the ball for the first time in 2009 with his health intact, and the fact that the opponent was only Boston College mattered little to Beckett.
"I was actually just having a conversation with David Ortiz about that," said Beckett. "It's a lot easier to focus on what you're trying to do when you're not dealing with those little nagging things that end up being exterior distractions and take your focus away from what you're trying to do."
In Wednesday's Spring Training debut, Beckett focused exclusively on throwing pitches. He fired off 22 of them, 15 for strikes. Over two innings, he struck out two and didn't allow a baserunner.
For Beckett and the Red Sox, it was a solid first step. Remember, the injuries to Beckett a year ago started way before the right oblique injury that hindered him in the postseason. It all started on the same City of Palms mound where Beckett faced Boston College.
Before his third start last spring, Beckett grabbed his back during his warmups and had to remove himself before the game even started. He started the season on the disabled list, setting the tone for what would become a frustrating year.
Now, it's all getting back to normal.
"Like I said, you can't go out there and not think about what happened last year," said Beckett. "I definitely thought about it some coming in, it's like, 'Is this going to happen again?' It was nice to get out of there and just feel good."
Though Jon Lester is an emerging lefty and Daisuke Matsuzaka is coming off an 18-win season, Beckett is the pitcher the Red Sox envision leading them if they are to win the World Series for the third time in six years.
"It would be nice to keep him out there for a bunch of starts," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "He's important to us. There's no getting around that. We want him to lead our staff. We've told him. I think he's at a point in his career where he relishes that. And he deserves it. It is important for us."
Beckett's plan of attack Wednesday was to get comfortable with his changeup. While his fastball and curve are pitches that come back to him instinctively, the change is the one that he can sometimes lose the feel for.
"I've kind of come into this spring really wanting to throw my changeup more during the spring, to get a feel for it," said Beckett. "It seemed like their lineup was kind of stacked with lefties, at least the part that I went through. I threw 22 pitches, I think I threw eight changeups -- seven or eight."
For a demonstration of what can happen to Beckett when he doesn't utilize his changeup, go back to 2006, his first season with the Red Sox. Though Beckett went 16-11 that year, he had a 5.01 ERA and gave up 36 homers.
"I didn't throw it much all year [in '06]," Beckett said. "There were a bunch of different people telling me that it was too hard and everything like that. Coming from the National League, that was basically how I pitched, fastball-changeup and curveball was kind of a little out pitch."
In '07, Beckett had the three pitch mix all year and finished second in the AL Cy Young Award voting. Last year, because of the injuries, Beckett didn't always have a consistent mix of hard and soft.
"It's a big feel pitch for me and the more I throw it, the more I can command it, the more I can take speed off of it, add speed to it," said Beckett. "It's a lot more of a feel pitch than my curveball is and I want to get as many of them in now as I can. That way I don't have to still be catching up to it in the regular season. If you go away from it early in the year because you don't have the feel for it, you're not going to get the feel for it."
Up next for Beckett will be his first Grapefruit League start, which comes Sunday at Hammond Stadium against the Twins.
"It's nice to go through a Spring Training and just know what you're going to do every day and not have to deal with sitting in the training room for three or four extra hours and stuff like that," said Beckett. "You just come in, you get your work done and you're out of here."
"It's nice to see him out there throwing free and easy," Francona said.
As Francona knows, the better Beckett feels, the easier things will be for the Red Sox.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.