FORT MYERS, Fla. -- What happened to Josh Beckett? What will happen to Josh Beckett?
They are the mysteries that have hovered over the Red Sox' spring training from its beginning to the final days, existing with plenty of guesses but few answers. Sitting down on a make-shift patio in the back of City of Palms Park, Beckett opened up to what exactly transpired in what he called the toughest year of his life, and what might be the biggest challenge of a 10-year big-league career.
But first, a dose of Beckett succinctness.
"It's awesome when it's awesome, and it's [crappy] when it's [crappy]," he dead-panned when trying to sum up what it's like to live the life of a pitcher. Beckett has been around long enough to know such things, and this much he realizes -- '10 was his [crappiest] experience yet.
"Last year was definitely the toughest year on me mentally, physically, everything," he said. "I've never endured a year like that. I had some great things happen to me in my personal life, but the physical limitations in my professional life made it the toughest year of my life, professionally, non-professionally, whatever. It put a strain on everything."
Up until this point, Beckett has been vague about exactly what transpired in '10, particularly after he returned to the Red Sox' rotation following injuries suffered to both his back and subscapular muscle in the back of his right shoulder in late July. Tuesday he presented the scenario for why the dominance of a season before never arrived, and how that experience will shape what awaits in '11.
"Quite frankly, I'm tired of thinking about last year," Beckett said. "I have to move forward." But in the next breath he admits that it will be that season -- the one he finished 6-6 with a 5.78 ERA -- that will allow him to take that leap he's looking for.
"I definitely think you take more away from failure than success," he added. "I must have learned a [crapload] last year. I think I learned a lot about myself, too."
Beckett first hurt his back in May. After missing a start, he returned to pitch in Yankee Stadium, where on a soggy night the ailment was tweaked again. A few weeks later, while amping up in a bullpen session, the righty strained the muscle in the back of his shoulder, just above where the lat (the area originally identified as the problem) ends.
"Last year was very, very tough," Beckett said. "It's tough to see your team drop this guy or that guy and you sit there and think you could be the missing piece, but there's nothing you can do because you're hurt. That's the tough thing. Last year was very tough on a lot of us."
He wouldn't pitch for more than two months, having to sit on a 7.29 ERA the entire time. The starter finally returned on July 23 with the expectations that he would be a major factor in keeping the Red Sox in playoff contention. And a solid first three outings (20 2/3 innings, five runs) did nothing to dissuade the wave of optimism.
The Red Sox would need Beckett to emulate the excellence he portrayed during a stretch in '09 he identifies as the best of his career, when he went 12-2 with a 2.17 ERA over 18 games. It was during that run that the then-29-year-old truly came to realize how good he could be, and what it felt like to be that good.
"I never made things that easy on myself as they were in 2009," he remembered. "A lot of that was maturity, going through some things in 2008 and everything like that. People asked me if I could be the same pitcher I was in 2007. I was like, "You're talking about 2007? Hey, 2009 was pretty good and that was just two years ago!" I'm 30 years old. What are we talking about here? I was 29 then! I had every pitch going in every start."
The problem was that by the time August came around in '10, Beckett was faced with the reality that there would be no such streak this time around. His body simply wouldn't allow it. Still, it was a reality he wasn't about to accept.
On Aug. 3, Beckett threw an eight-inning, one-run gem against the Indians, leaving the Red Sox 1/2 game out of the top spot in the Wild Card chase. From that point on the hurler would pitch in 10 more games, going 2-5 with a 5.87 ERA, not coming away with a single game in which he gave up fewer than three runs.
Beckett wants to make it clear that he was healthy enough to take the ball during the stretch. But that didn't mean all was well. Physically he still wasn't right.
This wasn't like the '08 playoffs, when the pain was immediate and intense. The problem for Beckett during the final two months of the '10 season was that the injuries he endured earlier in the year had left his body unable to function in the manner necessary to get on the kind of roll everyone was looking for.
"I was climbing a mountain, with me being stuck on a plateau, but then there are no handles to go the rest of the way. That's what I had," Beckett explained. "I was healthy enough to pitch. I should have done better than I did. But I tried to pitch the way I used to pitch instead of making adjustments. And the more stubborn I got, the more stubborn it would make me because somebody would say something to me and I would get defensive.
"I would be like, 'No, no, no, I'll figure it out my way.' Less would have been more. It would have been better for me. Instead I would still go out and do the same amount of long toss, the same amount of bullpens, with the same effort level. By doing that my next start was always in jeopardy. It just snowballed. That was what it was like all year after I hurt my back.
"It was definitely one year where when it ended I was looking forward to getting home and getting my wheels back up," he added. "I felt like I was just spinning my wheels and not getting anywhere. There was no traction. It was like driving in snow. That's how the traction felt for me last year. Some of that was health, some of it was me being stubborn, saying, 'I can do this, I can do this,' when really I should have been doing less, not more."
Beckett has returned armed with the lessons of a season, but also a sobering realization -- there is still a lot work to do.
"I was missing the power at the end (of the delivery)," he said regarding a major problem that needed to be fixed for '11. "I had some good ones, and those were probably ones where I used my secondary stuff a lot better. The bad starts were the ones where I tried to throw fastballs by guys when I didn't have that power. I feel like I'm getting that back.
"I had to re-train myself this offseason after I got into some bad habits. It's not an overnight deal. You pick up some bad habits when you throw for six months a different way then you have thrown for the last 20 years. I have had to make some small adjustments this spring. it's still not 100 percent comfortable. That's what we're looking for. Obviously results matter to some people in spring training, but I think everybody can tell by my mood I'm not too worried about results. I'm worried about what this is going to lead to when I get to the regular season and I'm going every fifth day knowing we have to keep some momentum going."
Beckett has had to endure some ups and downs throughout his four spring training starts, most noticeably two big innings in each of his last pair of outings (both against the Pirates in Bradenton). His ERA stands at 5.02, but, as he pointed out, that's not the focus. Things such as hitting 95 mph on the radar gun on a few occasions have made more of a mark.
There is work to be done, but the pitcher has found his jumping off point. That "power" which couldn't summon in '10 has returned.
"I'm usually not a guy who comes in throwing 97, 98 mph in spring training. I'm usually at 90, 91, maybe top out at 93," Beckett said. "My pitching coach [Curt Young] told me I have hit 95 some times. I don't think I've done that since I was 21, but those days were long gone seven or eight years ago. I wasn't that guy. I came into spring training and I was building up to something. Velocity-wise there's a problem with me getting back to 2009, 2003, 2007."
As far as Beckett is concerned, the stuff is different, as is the mindset.
Another alteration is the notion that Beckett isn't being burdened by the fresh expectations that came with signing a four-year, $68 million extension.
"Yeah, you think about things like that," he said when asked about the factoring in the pressures of a new deal. "But I was healthy enough to pitch. There's definitely the feeling that I've got a job to do. But you have to do your job good, too. Trust me, nobody wanted me to do better than me. I'll admit to being selfish if that's what that means. Stubborn Josh wouldn't allow me to make adjustments. Sometimes that's my downfall, but I really don't think I would be where I am right now if I didn't have that tenacity of, 'I'm going to grab this and do this.'
"I'm not discouraged by anything, but I really can't pinpoint one thing I'm most encouraged by except for health. I feel good the day after my starts. Things are much better than they were last year. I would literally lay awake nights after I pitched wondering how I was going to be able to do it again pitching like that. What could I do to compete better? And that's when the stubbornness set in. Just do what you've always done, that's what I was thinking. It was like the little devil on your shoulder. That's me. I wouldn't be where I'm at right now if I didn't have that co,petite streak. At some point last year I should have had to make an adjustment. I wish somebody would have just given me an ultimatum. 'You do this or I'm kicking you in the [midsection].' But everybody handles things their own way. I should have done it to myself. I shouldn't have needed anyone giving me an ultimatum."
Beckett's message: This time the lessons have been learned, and no further motivation will be needed.
"I've always believed everything else takes care of itself. Physical limitations that are the things that can hold me back. As long as health is not an issue, I've had good numbers."