Breaking ball deserts Beckett in Bradenton

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Josh Beckett has one start left in Florida, in which he is expected to approach the 100-pitch threshold, then will have his final tuneup in an exhibition game in Houston, which represents home for the native of the suburb of Spring, Tex.

A checklist of his spring so far, after he took the loss in the Pirates’ 7-5 win in Bradenton, the second time in five days he has pitched here.

The back: Strong. Not an issue so far this spring.

The velocity: Good.

The changeup: Getting some positive reviews from manager Terry Francona, who said Beckett has “softened” the pitch with very encouraging results. Beckett also was pleased with his change Saturday.

The breaking ball: Much better last time. Saturday, Beckett threw only four of 17 curveballs for strikes. Something to refine in his next side session with pitching coach Curt Young.

The freak injury: Over and done with. Beckett sustained a concussion when struck in the head by a batted ball from staff assistant Ino Guerrero, which caused him to miss a start. Saturday, he got hit by another batted ball, off the bat of former Sox catcher Dusty Brown, but this one hit him in the foot and caromed to shortstop Marco Scutaro. Kick save, and a beauty. “Yeah, all the hockey we play down in Texas,’’ Beckett said.

The big innings: A nuisance so far. The Pirates scored four runs off him in the fifth inning last Sunday, then scored five off him in the fourth on Saturday, an inning that began with a fielding error by Nate Spears and included a throwing error by catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Only one of the runs Saturday was earned.

Getting out of trouble was hardly a strong suit last season for Beckett. With runners in scoring position, hitters posted a .338/.432/.507/.939 line.

The state of mind: Uniformly upbeat all around. If either Becket or the club is fretting about the results so far (5.02 ERA), they’re not showing it. Beckett knows he came into camp as one of the team’s biggest question marks after a disastrous 2010. Things happen in spring training that don’t happen during the season, like the Pirates’ starting pitchers each collecting a hit off Beckett (Brad Lincoln on Sunday, Edwin Correia on Saturday).

“When the season starts, consistency is a huge thing,’’ Francona said, “but the ball is coming out of his hand real good. His velocity was good, his changeup was real good. Now he’ll take a side day with Curt and work on the breaking ball.’’

The Sox are trying to create an environment in which Beckett gets off to a good start, lining him up to pitch in Cleveland instead of the opening weekend in Texas. That’s the company line, anyway. It’s also possible they see him as their fourth best pitcher. Wouldn’t be so sure of that. Theo Epstein is on record as saying he wouldn’t bet against Beckett having a big bounce-back year. Nothing that has happened so far this spring has anyone changing his mind.