DENVER -- Wednesday was a big day for Red Sox ace Josh Beckett. Not only did he throw a 55-pitch side session, but he felt like a full-fledged pitcher again. There were no thoughts about his back or his lat, which have forced his prolonged stint on the disabled list. Instead, it was all about the execution of pitches.

And Beckett now has a clear schedule ahead of him that goes like this: He will simulate some innings on Saturday at San Francisco. During Boston's off-day at Fenway Park next Thursday, he will face hitters in another simulated game. And as long as he passes those two tests, the righty will start a Minor League rehab assignment on July 6.

"Today felt good," said Beckett. "Things are getting back to normal. Today was much more normal. Go out and play catch, get on the mound and throw a side."

Red Sox manager Terry Francona estimates that Beckett will need three to four starts in the Minors before pitching in the Majors again for the first time since May 18. That timetable means that the earliest Beckett would return is July 21, when the Red Sox are in Oakland.

Beckett is trying not to get too preoccupied by a timetable and focusing on each necessary step.

"Things change," said Beckett. "I think we've spread this process out. They've listened to me about how I feel and stuff like that. I think that we'll come back when I'm ready. They've been good about that, about listening to me."

Knowing how vital Beckett is to their success down the stretch, the Red Sox will make sure to monitor his health closely.

"Three or four [starts] is probably realistic," Francona said. "Whatever he needs. We're not going to shortcut it, because we don't shortcut anyone. Whatever is in his best interest, we'll do. Some of it depends on how he's doing. We also don't want him to pitch for the PawSox all year if he can help up. That's not the idea. This guy is good. We'll just do whatever is right. We want him, when he pitches for us, to be on the mound and feel like he can go compete, and not have to think about stuff. When he does, he's not the same pitcher."

Beckett spent much of Wednesday's session regaining his feel for pitching.

"My curveball was iffy," Beckett said. "I threw some good changeups today. Like I said, things are getting back to normal. Arm speed is back to normal. Things were so scripted before. Now it's just the natural thing to just go out and play catch, and get on the mound and do what you have to do. It's not like watching this pitch or this pitch."

There was a clear bounce to Beckett, even as he spoke to the media, which typically isn't one of his favorite activities.

"Over the past week, I've been better, mood and everything," said Beckett. "It's tough when you've got no light at the end of the tunnel. Every day you come in and there's no [purpose]. 'What am I getting ready for?' That's where it gets tough. You come in and you're the first guy here. You get your stuff out of the way, so you're not in the way of the other players. You just sit around. It's a lot of downtime."

But the downtime is now over for Beckett, as he is ramping up for a return to the Red Sox.

Drew looking unlikely for Thursday

DENVER -- J.D. Drew's right hamstring is not progressing as quickly as he hoped, making it increasingly unlikely he will return to the lineup for Thursday's finale of this three-game series against the Rockies.

Wednesday was the fourth straight game Drew was out of the lineup.

"He went out and ran," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "I think he was a little bit disappointed. I think he thought he was going to get to a certain point and get to a level and then kind of go to another one. He wasn't able to do that. He is getting better, actually improving significantly. I think he was a little disappointed, he couldn't quite get to that next gear, so that's kind of where we are."

Though Francona didn't completely rule Drew out for Thursday, he admitted it didn't seem realistic.

"If you had to ask me now, no," Francona said. "I guess there's always a chance you wake up and feel good. I would say after watching him today, probably not."

Josh Reddick, promoted from Triple-A on Tuesday, started in place of Drew for the second straight night. The Red Sox have to make a roster move on Thursday to activate Daisuke Matsuzaka. Because of Drew's injury, they could hang on to Reddick for another couple of days and send down a pitcher.

Worth noting

The Red Sox continue to be conservative with Mike Cameron's playing time. Manager Terry Francona held the center fielder out of Wednesday's lineup with the hope of playing him Thursday against righty Jason Hammel and again on Friday in San Francisco when Boston goes against lefty Jonathan Sanchez. ... Daisuke Matsuzaka is not expected to be on any kind of pitch count on Thursday night when he returns from the disabled list. "I don't think it's a big deal. If we're in the sixth inning, and hopefully we've got the lead, and the pitcher is coming up, maybe we hit for him," Francona said. "I don't think it's going to be an issue." ... David Ortiz got the start at first base on Wednesday against Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez, leaving Kevin Youkilis as the odd man out. For Thursday's series finale, Ortiz will likely again start at first, with Youkilis moving to third and Adrian Beltre getting the night off.