ST. PETERSBURG — Josh Beckett was spotted smiling for a moment in the Red Sox clubhouse at Fenway Park on Thursday afternoon. On the team flight to Tampa early Friday morning, he bought into the card game. Highly unusual.
Boston started the 28-year-old right-hander in Game 2 last Saturday hoping for the surly Texan who had established himself as one of the best postseason pitchers of his generation.
That Beckett, the 2007 ALCS MVP and 2003 World Series MVP, would have gone far in giving the Red Sox a 2-0 lead in the series heading back to Boston. They got the Beckett working through a late-season oblique injury that diminished his ability to find the strike zone.
The Red Sox will start Beckett again tonight in Game 6 at Tropicana Field. The old Beckett could even the best-of-seven series at three games. The Game 2 Beckett could begin an offseason resting the various injuries that have plagued him this season.
"He's not going to forget how to compete," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "So even if he's going out there with maybe close to what he has — maybe it's not 96 (mph), maybe it's 92, 93 — he's still Beckett. And that doesn't mean he can't win. That doesn't mean he can't dominate."
Beckett has been bothered by tingling in his arm, elbow and shoulder soreness and the oblique strain sustained during his final regular-season bullpen session. Beckett's first playoff start was pushed back, and he allowed four runs, nine hits and four walks in four innings against the Angles. He was then drubbed for eight earned runs on nine hits in 41/3 innings against the Rays.
Pitching coach John Farrell said Beckett continues to seek a new "point of reference" with his current health.
"If that point of reference is where he's in the mid 90s, where he's had maybe a great ability to miss or get outs or when pitches are mislocated within the zone, you still have the benefit of velocity to get away with those pitches," Farrell said. "That hasn't been the case his last two starts."
One of Beckett's few blips of emotion — and one must squint to see it — came when he was told how excited his teammates seemed about his next start.
"That's awesome," Beckett said. "That's the biggest compliment I think you can get."
Indeed, Red Sox players seemed comfortable with the prospect of Beckett, who was 6-2 with a 1.73 ERA in nine playoff starts before this season, pitching a pivotal game despite his recent problems.
"This is a big-game guy," designated hitter David Ortiz said. "I've got the feeling he's going to bring. … Actually (Friday morning) on the airplane, he was different than what he normally is. He was playing cards with the guys and got his (butt) kicked."
For the last time this weekend, they hope.