Beckett trying to find lost swagger in Cleveland

Beckett trying to find lost swagger in Cleveland

CLEVELAND -- The Red Sox might be in a bit of a pressure situation on Tuesday night when they take the field against the Indians, trying to reverse their fortunes from a disappointing 0-3 start to the season.

For Josh Beckett, who will make his 2011 debut in the No. 4 slot of the club's rotation, it in no way compares to the type of situation he was forced to rescue his team from the last time he took the ball in Cleveland.

Believe it or not, when Beckett steps on the mound in the bottom of the first inning on Tuesday, it will mark his first road outing against the Indians since the epic Game 5 of the 2007 American League Championship Series, when all he did was save the season and make an eventual World Series title possible for the Red Sox. Boston was down in the series, 3-1, but Beckett refused to let his team go home for the season.

Maybe that ALCS gem -- eight innings, five hits, one run, 11 strikeouts -- doesn't quite match his '03 World Series clincher against the Yankees on three days' rest, but it's not far off.

"It was a pretty good one," Beckett said. "Our backs were definitely against the wall. It definitely ranks up there."

When Beckett made that start 33 months ago, he was the unquestioned ace of the Red Sox. He had an aura that surrounded him as not only the best pitcher on his team, but someone who thrived in the most pressurized moments imaginable.

Now, after the most humbling season of his life, he is trying to get that type of dominance and swagger back. As far as the Red Sox are concerned, there would be no better time than Tuesday for Beckett's rebound to start.

"I think his pride took a beating last year," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "I definitely agree with that. I think he feels like he has a lot to prove."

This proving ground puts Beckett a bit of an unfamiliar place. Traditionally, he has made his first start on Opening Day or in the second game of the season. Not since Beckett's rookie year of 2002, when he was fifth out of the gate for the Marlins, has he opened the season as low as fourth in the rotation.

"He's a big leader on our staff," said Francona. "Wherever he's coming out of the gate, whether it's four or wherever, he's still a big leader on our staff. Guys look up to him a lot."

Beckett knows that after last year -- when injuries limited him to 21 starts and his ERA swelled to 5.78 -- he has no place to have qualms with where he is slotted.

"It is what it is. I have to go out there and pitch my day, one way or the other, whatever day it is," said Beckett.

Part of the reason Francona put Beckett in the fourth spot was to give him a little more time to get everything fine-tuned. The righty worked a lot with new pitching coach Curt Young on mechanical adjustments during Spring Training.

Of course, Francona didn't expect starters Jon Lester, John Lackey and Clay Buchholz to give up 18 runs over 15 1/3 innings in Texas.

"The way we set it up at the moment [stinks]," quipped Francona. "But I think it made some sense."

Beckett is of the mind that as long as he's healthy, he will perform. He fought through a back injury last season, one that forced him to the DL in the middle of the season. Beckett recently confided that the injury also affected the muscle in the back of his throwing shoulder.

During the winter, Beckett built a new foundation of core strength, something he hopes will make a huge difference in his 2011 season.

"I feel good," said Beckett. "I think a lot of the things we did this offseason, with the core stability stuff, I'm really noticing the differences now with having the everyday [routine]. I think during the offseason you feel stronger, but it's not like you're doing baseball activities every day. I think sometimes standing around on your spikes for two hours during Spring Training in the morning is really the big test."

It didn't take a bad season for Beckett to work hard in the winter. But he knew what his new focal point needed to be during his workouts.

"When I first got into pro ball, to strengthen your core meant you sat on an aired-up, really stiff balloon and get some weights, and you do situps," said Beckett. "Now it's evolved into this whole different thing with the core stability, the Pilates and stuff like that."

The numbers weren't always pretty for Beckett during Spring Training, but he was never really focusing on them. Instead, he was trying to reestablish his changeup as a certifiable weapon while also working on those mechanical adjustments with Young.

"Those are secret adjustments. Can't tell anybody about them," Beckett said with a smile.

In his final exhibition start, it all seemed to come together, as he fired five innings of one-hit ball in Houston.

"I was really excited about the last two starts -- just the way things started to feel and some of the adjustments that we had made early in the spring," said Beckett. "I felt like I took those adjustments into the game immediately, but they don't always show up right away, I guess. My last two starts, I really did actually feel like they started clicking."

And now, Beckett will try to start clicking again in games that count, and perhaps there's no more fitting place for the righty to get his groove back than Cleveland.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.