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03/24/10 4:54 PM ET

Beckett buckles down as season nears

Red Sox's ace notches nine strikeouts against Pirates

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The similarity was this: For the second successive start, Josh Beckett took the ball on the road against the Pirates, even facing the same pitcher (Paul Maholm) as five days ago.

But the difference was this: Beckett dominated on Wednesday.

With Opening Night drawing near, the Red Sox certainly didn't mind watching Beckett overpower the Pirates, striking out nine over five innings. Beckett allowed three hits and a run, walking two.

There was no resemblance to Beckett's last start at McKechnie Field, when the Pirates touched him up for six hits and four runs over 3 1/3 innings.

"I thought he was throwing hard," said Mike Lowell, who made the start at first base. "They hit him around a little bit the last time, so I think he wanted to prove something. That's what's great about him. He's a big competitor."

Last time around, Beckett was scuffling from a health stand point. Inflicted with a flu that has spread around several players on the team, Beckett missed his start on March 14 and was bed-ridden for most of the time before his previous outing against Pittsburgh.

There is still a raspiness to Beckett's voice, but the worst of his illness is clearly behind him.

"Every day is getting better," said Beckett. "Today is by far the best day in two weeks. Strength-wise, it's looking good."

Though manager Terry Francona hasn't revealed his rotation for the start of the season, the expectation is that Beckett, widely regarded as the ace of a loaded rotation, will take the ball on Easter Sunday night against the Yankees.

Beckett said the decision is ultimately in Francona's hands, but Opening Day is something he relishes.

"It's fun," Beckett said. "You're only the Opening Day starter one time a year. Everybody becomes the Opening Day starter from then on, whenever their day shows up."

In his Wednesday performance, Beckett seemed to have just about everything going.

"He was pretty good," Francona said. "That's encouraging. He was powerful. Again, stating the obvious, that was good to see. He had power to his fastball, he had that two-seamer to lefties."

Beckett will get one last Grapefruit League tune-up, and it is likely to come on Monday night at City of Palms Park against the Rays.

"I think this time of Spring Training, you're throwing side [sessions] and working on individual things," Beckett said. "For me, I think this week I need to work on repeating my delivery every time and get to that point where I can throw that fastball down and away to righties consistently."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.