ST. PETERSBURG -- Josh Beckett will be back on the mound on Saturday in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series vs. the Rays, a more regular schedule under his belt. The big question will be how the right-hander fares under those normal circumstances -- and the Red Sox are eager to find out.
Coming off a troublesome no-decision in Game 3 of the AL Division Series against the Angels, marked by repeated shakeoffs and mound pauses, Beckett, who didn't start Game 1 of the first-round series due a strained right oblique, insists that he will resemble his usual postseason force as the Red Sox look to take a commanding 2-0 lead and send the ALCS on to Fenway Park.
Asked if he thought he could approach his former levels of performance, as the Red Sox and Rays do battle in the Game 2, Beckett responded in the affirmative, saying, "Yeah. I'm going to be the best I can be."
Manager Terry Francona said that Beckett was physically fine, and that it would be to Beckett's benefit to have returned to a regular throwing program after a 13-day layoff left him with rustiness. Should the series go to a sixth game, Beckett would line up for that start, an arrangement with which Francona has no qualms.
"The farther he's removed from his problems of last week, he can concentrate on his routine and concentrate on pitching instead of trying to get better," Francona said.
Beckett's recovery from a strained right oblique robbed some of the zip he normally showcases under October settings. Beckett allowed four runs on nine hits to the Angels in Game 3 of the ALDS, the most he had allowed in a postseason game and raising his stellar playoff ERA from 1.73 to 2.09.
"I think sometimes two weeks off might be good for you -- sometimes it might not be," Beckett said. "Sometimes it may be more beneficial than others. I guess the answer to that is, I don't really know."
Beckett vs. Rays in 2008
Beckett's tempo appeared deliberate in the Game 3 start against the Angels, as he shook off catcher Jason Varitek and held the ball for extended periods. The right-hander insisted that it was not the result of a physical issue.
"It wasn't premeditated or anything like that," Beckett said. "I think it's just how the game is going. The pace of the game for a pitcher sometimes ends up being dictated by a bunch of different things."
Beckett said that he did not place much value in the readings from the radar gun at Fenway Park in that 106-pitch start, which did not display his normal crisp velocity. He said that the continued return from his oblique injury has permitted his routine to approach normalcy.
"After I got healthy enough to where I could do certain things ... I definitely think the last five days have kind of gotten a little more normal as far as being able to do everything that I generally do," Beckett said.
Beckett will be facing a Rays lineup that saw him for five starts this season, with Tampa Bay winning three of those meetings. He complemented the Rays' ability to hit with runners in scoring position and stressed the importance of evading those tricky spots.
9.27 Ks-per 9 IP at Tropicana Field (2nd best in Majors)
Road ERA is nearly three runs lower than home (4th in AL)
1 GS, 1-0, 3.38 ERA
1 GS, 0-0, 7.20 ERA
124 GS, 47-37, 3.61 ERA, 341 BB, 783 K
196 GS, 89-62, 3.78 ERA, 371 BB, 1,131 K
1 GS, 1-0, 3.38 ERA
10 GS, 7-0, 2.09 ERA
At Tropicana Field
14 GS, 8-2, 2.90 ERA
2 GS, 0-1, 1.20 ERA
61 GS, 21-14, 3.10 ERA
4 GS, 1-2, 1.93 ERA
Loves to face:
David Ortiz (8-for-39)
Carlos Pena (3-for-17)
Hates to face:
Dustin Pedroia (14-for-25)
Jason Bartlett (6-for-18)
Why he'll win:
If he can escape first inning and keep pitch count low, slider and high fastball combination can be lethal.
3-0 in ALCS games, and knows how to perform in big moments.
"I think one through nine, as far as situational hitting goes, I think they were probably about as good as they came in the Major Leagues this year," Beckett said.
The postseason stage has always agreed with Beckett, excepting the unimpressive ALDS outing this year. Beckett's five innings against the Angels was the shortest effort of his 10 starts in the playoffs, where he is 6-2 with a 2.09 ERA, including three wins in the ALCS.
"I think he thrives on that and he enjoys it," Francona said. "But I think you have to be a very good pitcher to begin with, regardless of how you feel mentally. If you don't physically have the stuff to do it, you're probably kind of running upstream a little bit."
Beckett and Rays ace Scott Kazmir have more in common than their starting assignments Saturday. Both were Houston-area high school standouts. Pitching for Cy Falls High School, Kazmir topped Beckett's single-season record for strikeouts by a prep pitcher, fanning three more batters than Beckett's old tally for Spring High School, setting the new mark with 175 punchouts.
Though the timeline of their high school service never permitted a matchup, the two have locked heads twice in Major League games -- Beckett logged his 20th victory last season by outdueling Kazmir at Tropicana Field on Sept. 21, 2007, but Kazmir raised his game to pitch his only career complete-game shutout facing Beckett on July 3, 2006.
Kazmir said Friday that he has watched Beckett since high school and has appreciated periodic opportunities to discuss various topics.
"You just pick up a lot of things from a guy like that, just how competitive he is and how he goes about his business," Kazmir said. "There's quite a few things that you can take out of someone like that -- you know, that's been there, done everything and really knows how to go about his business."
The fellow Texans have even worked out together during the offseason, but Beckett said the conversation has drifted far from pitching-related matters, calling it a "Hey, how you doing?" relationship.
"I think most people -- particularly pitchers from Texas -- generally end up talking about fishing or hunting or something like that," Beckett said.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.