FORT MYERS, Fla. -- He sat on the back porch of his rented spring training home, overlooking the kind of pond that litters almost every Florida golf course community. Risa, the dog of the house, is scratching at the screen door, trying to get out.
The entrance way is finally opened, but with some trepidation.
“I’m worried,” said Josh Beckett, “that [Risa] is going to end up an alligator turd.” (The boxer did make it back inside without incident, allowing Beckett to go about his business.)
Moments later the 28-year-old Red Sox ace would be speaking glowingly of his former Marlins teammate, and newly-signed Sox pitcher, Brad Penny when in mid-compliment the pitcher changed course slightly.
“I think Brad can keep things loose in the clubhouse. That’s something I wish I could be,” he says, staring straight ahead while slouched back in a lounge chair, wearing a gray, Texas A & M hooded sweatshirt. “He’ll just sit there and tell us stories and keep us loose. That’s something I always wish I could be, but I’m not a funny guy.”
Alligator turd … not funny? One look at the canine (whose name is, fittingly, Spanish for “laughter”) should offer proof that humor, whether the Texan recognizes it or not, is indeed part of his repertoire.
As hard as it is to believe, sometimes Beckett has to be reminded how good he can be. But one look at last season and the reality regarding the pitcher’s talents and maturity shouldn’t be hard to find.
Beckett recently sat down to clarify what exactly happened during his uneven 2008 campaign — speaking on everything from his spring training of a year ago, to a mysterious elbow injury that saddled him with the kind of fear no pitcher hopes comes along, to a little known injury scare that emerged during the offseason, and what he expects when it comes to dealing with a contract which is in the last guaranteed year.
And, of course, there is that ultimate reminder as to how far Beckett has come, which he has held on to for four months now — Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.
In that start, Beckett managed to get through five innings and give up just four hits and two runs with not only a severely damaged oblique muscle, but also what was later identified as problems with his intercostal muscles under his rib cage. And it was that performance that allows Beckett to start his fourth season secure in the knowledge that he was more than just that kid who cruised through life living near triple digits on the radar gun.
“I get more [grief] from my buddies, saying, ‘That was brutal!’ They were watching me throw slop up there,” Beckett said. “They had never seen me throw 89, 90 mph. The last time that happened was probably my freshman year in high school. I don’t know how many cutters I threw in that game but it was a ton.”
Looking back, it was that moment — especially after throwing a side-stabbing, second-inning ball to Tampa Bay’s Jason Bartlett — that offers the ultimate reminder. Through all the bumps in the road last season, Beckett came out of 2008 knowing he better prepared than ever before to live the life of a staff’s ace.
“It’s more a constant feeling now,” Beckett said. “It’s way more of a constant feeling, and very, very cool to be considered the ace. We never had aces down in Florida because we were too young.
“They want an organizational trend, and I think from the moment I walked in there and them seeing how I approached in-between starts, how regimented I am, how I file things away, they understand that some of that stuff has to work at some point and time for them to look at it and say, ‘That’s a good program.’
“I had to go through an awkward awakening to get to where I’m at. I walk in my first year and I see all these college guys doing all these drills and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t have to do that.’ And then I get out there and start throwing every day, my shoulder starts hurting, and then I end up in Birmingham (at Dr. James Andrews office) three times in one year.”
LESSONS OF A SEASON
Beckett had his share of scares throughout ’08, many not so unlike the kind he was first introduced to as a young Marlins prospect in 2000 when he sat in a waiting room listening to a doctor tell the team’s trainer in the other room that the pitcher would need labrum surgery. “I was devastated listening to that conversation,” said Beckett, who would ultimately avoid the operation thanks to a second opinion from Andrews.
There was the back, the elbow, the oblique, and finally the intercostals, all contributing to almost a full calendar year of playing catch-up.
“My body just wouldn’t get strong,” Beckett explained. “It was hard for me to get strong last year, even during the year. I just maintained what I had. I think it was a combination of the 450 innings I threw the two years prior to that.
“There were a couple of times during the year where I had a couple of back to back to starts that I thought I really had things going. I remember after start in Chicago me and (pitching coach John) Farrell sitting after my bullpen session really thinking we were hitting our stride. Everything just felt great. My back felt great, my arm felt great. I went through a couple of periods like that.
“Last year wasn’t a botched year by any means. I showed myself I can get through a lot of [stuff], especially when it came down to the end. I was running on about half a tank before the season even started last year.”
The state of Beckett upon entering into the first few weeks of the ’08 spring training didn’t go unnoticed by the Red Sox.
“I do think last year Josh paid the price for pitching deep into the season the year before,” said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. “He came to camp and he was just a click behind what he was the year before. It’s not a lack of effort. We leaned on him hard, and then he got nicked up right from the beginning and he was playing catch-up. I think what we said last year was there were a lot of interruptions and he never could get on that roll.”
First came the back problem, suffered in early March, and then a subpar, eight-start run through July and August that can now be somewhat traced back to a condition in his throwing elbow that ultimately sidelined him in just prior to the final month of the regular season.
“My muscle was inflamed and swelled up, so every time I threw the nerve hit that muscle,” explained Beckett. “I hope I never have to deal with that again. It wasn’t out of the blue. I pitched with it for a while. It wasn’t every day. Some days I would wake up and it would be fine, and some days I would be like, ‘What’s going on here?’ Any time a pitcher has something like that happen you want to talk to somebody, asking them what their ‘Tommy John Surgery’ felt like. ‘Did you ever feel this, or get that?’ I talked to so many people about it. I talked to Farrell about it a lot. We had phone calls at two and three in the morning.”
The turning point came with a trip to see Beckett’s old friend, Dr. Andrews, who steered the pitcher away from surgery eight years before and now was guiding his patient toward peace of mind.
“It was a testament to how much I trusted [Andrews],” Beckett said. “I could have had a lot of people telling me, ‘You’re OK,’ and I would have not believed them. I sat there looking at this computer he did not know how to work, with some kid working it for him, zooming in, zooming out. And him just saying, ‘Your ligament is fine, lets get that swelling out and get back to pitching.’”
But then came the oblique.
Beckett had taken great pride in focusing on one thing at a time, not getting too far ahead. He had become unbelievably regimented, religiously keeping a journal while admitting, “Every year I’ve become more anal retentive about those things that I know make me successful.”
This period, however, was going to put Beckett’s focus to the ultimate test. He could feel the ball not getting to the plate like he hoped, but worrying about the end result of such obstacles wasn’t going to help matters.
“As an athlete you try not to let doubt ever get in,” he said. “You just keep grinding away one pitch at a time. That’s what John Farrell and I kept talking about, one pitch at a time. It almost becomes easier that way, especially when you’re dealing with something like I was. If I think, ‘Oh [no], I have to throw 100 of these today, that’s a pretty steep climb. ‘OK, fastball down and away.’ ‘OK, curveball.’ ‘OK, cutter.’ The next thing you know is that you’re four or five innings. It made it a lot easier.”
The strategy didn’t get Beckett and the Red Sox to quite the destination they had hoped, but did offer a painfully useful lesson.
“The thing that sticks out in mind the most is when we lost,” he said. “I had never been on that side. Every time we went to the playoffs we won the whole thing. I sat there and watched Tampa Bay celebrate. There were about 11 or 12 of us out there. I remember thinking, ‘So, this is what it’s like. This is brutal.’ It was so abrupt. We’re facing elimination and we get back to 3-3 and I’m going to the field thinking, ‘OK, Philly is coming to us. That’s just the way it’s going to be.’ It was just so abrupt. I remember the ground ball that was hit to (Tampa Bay second baseman Akinori) Iwamura (for the final out). When it hit the side of the mound I was like, ‘That’s the break we needed,’ and it just bounces to him.”
And what if the Red Sox’ ticket to the World Series would have been punched? What to become of Beckett?
“We would have made it happen, absolutely,” said the hurler regarding his chances of pitching in another round. “It would have been with guile. I don’t think it would have been a whole lot of, ‘I’m the [expletive deleted]!’
ONE FINAL OBSTACLE AND THE FUTURE
What many haven’t heard was that the tests didn’t end with the conclusion of the ’08 season. With the sting of his oblique injury, along with the Sox loss in Game 6, healing as November turned into December, the year was punctuated with yet another concern.
“When I first got home this offseason and all of the drugs and adrenaline wore off, I was feeling it more in my rib cage,” Beckett said. “I can still point to the spot where I could feel it. I started throwing and the first couple of times it just felt so-so, but then by the time I started throwing 90 feet or so my body felt looser and I was ready throw every day. I think you end up compensating a little bit. If your oblique is blown out, something else has to pick up the slack. But the first couple of times I threw I was concerned still. I called (assistant trainer) Mike (Reinold) and we were ready going to get an MRI if things didn’t do better at the end of the week (Jan. 5).”
The pain went away, and workouts heavy on side-to-side actions and core-strengthening exercises picked up leading him into the 2009 spring training.
The work has seemingly paid off, with more than one onlooker suggesting that Beckett looks more like the spring training pitcher of ’07 than ’08. And with the prospects of excellence around the corner, the talk of the pitcher’s contract isn’t going to be too far behind.
This is the final guaranteed year of Beckett’s contract, with the Red Sox holding a team option for $12 million (with a buyout of $2 million). The matter isn’t something the pitcher likes to think (or talk) about, but with the recent offseason reminders, Beckett isn’t ignoring the fact that he might have to put his business hat on before too long.
“I honestly don’t try to think about it. I think if I deserve it I’ll be back here,” he said. “If they think I don’t, I’ll have to go elsewhere and try something else. Obviously I would like to stay here, but (thinking about it) is really not in my core.
“At the end of the year hopefully we’ll sit down and maybe have a talk with (Red Sox general manager) Theo (Epstein), me and my agent (Michael Moye) and see what they’re thinking about. I want to see where they’re going, if I’m even in their plans. If I’m not it was an awesome run. I really haven’t sat down and thought about it too much, but at the end of the year we will sit down and at least have a talk. Even if nothing comes of it, just to say, ‘Are we in the plans? Are we looking to get younger?’ It’s really up to them. I would like to stay here. I love playing in Boston. I can’t imagine another organization that would go so far out of the way to make my job as easy as possible. They realize our jobs are very demanding and very hard, and they do everything they can.”
Just like their ace.
Rob Bradford is the site editor for WEEI.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.