Josh Beckett aces first Fenway test

BOSTON -- To say there were a lot of factors surrounding Josh Beckett's start for the Boston Red Sox's home opener might be the understatement of this young baseball season.

Friday against the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park was the first time he would pitch in front of the home crowd since the disastrous ending to the 2011 season, and the subsequent tales of beer and chicken in the clubhouse during games.

While other pitchers, namely Jon Lester, apologized during spring training, saying last season's off-field incidents were mistakes, Beckett showed no remorse.

The veteran right-hander didn't help matters when he was torched in his season debut last week at Detroit. He lasted only 4 2/3 innings and allowed seven runs on seven hits, including five home runs.

He had been dealing with a thumb issue for the past 18 months. Sox manager Bobby Valentine said the team has been cautious, even keeping 13 pitchers on the staff in case Beckett wasn't healthy enough to pitch, but the right-hander answered any doubt on Friday.

Beckett worked eight innings and allowed one run on five hits with one walk and one strikeout to help the Red Sox to a 12-2 victory over the Rays.

"It was just what the doctor ordered," Valentine said. "We were wondering and hoping, and he relieved all doubt. He threw great curveballs and had terrific control. He threw all of his fastballs over 90 mph and that was the performance we were looking for. The home opener, and everything else combined, that was a perfect outing."

As Valentine noted, Beckett looked determined, especially when he was able to pitch out of a jam in the second inning after allowing his only run.

"It ended up being big," Beckett said. "Obviously, you don't want to be too far behind when David Price is pitching. I thought our guys did a really good job of grinding it out in that third inning and really getting his pitch count up. It was nice to limit that damage and for us to come in and do that."

Beckett retired 21 of the last 24 batters he faced before he was lifted after eight innings. His pitch count had reached only 94 pitches and he was scheduled to return for the ninth inning, but the Red Sox's offense batted around in the bottom of the eighth, exploding for eight runs, and Beckett's outing was kaput.

Beckett improves to 4-0 with a 0.84 ERA in his past six starts against the Rays, dating back to Sept. 12, 2009. He's also surrendered one run or less in five of those outings.

Boston needed another one of those strong outings on Friday.

Since the Red Sox returned home from a recent road trip with a 1-5 record, a day like this, at home, was a major relief for Boston.

"We can always take one of these days," Beckett said. "It's kind of tough when you go from spring training, and you haven't been home in six weeks, then they throw you on a road trip like that. I mean, it is what it is and other teams have to do that as well. But going to Detroit and obviously the fans, and that team, are very, very excited with what they've done in the offseason, so I think those guys were extra locked in and sometimes it's tough to start in a place like that."

When asked what he thought the difference was between starts, Beckett didn't have an answer.

"I don't know," he said. "You come out of spring training, and I'm not saying your [spring] starts don't mean anything because you're definitely trying to do something, but there's definitely a different feel to your starts down there. Then you get going in the season and there are a lot of exterior distractions maybe that you can't calm down the first time, it's tough."

A major reason Beckett was so successful Friday was his batterymate, Kelly Shoppach.

Boston's backup catcher spent the past two seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays and knows that team pretty well. Even Valentine said before the game he was hoping Shoppach's knowledge would help. It did.

"Oh, well, whatever you need," Shoppach said. "It's another ballgame, big league ballgame. You get excited to play all of them. I don't take any of this stuff for granted. I got to the yard today and was pleasantly surprised to see my name on the lineup. I called my wife to make sure she'd be here on time."

As consistently as Beckett was, he registered only one strikeout. It came in the top of the eighth inning when he got Carlos Pena swinging. Beckett has now fanned at least one batter in all 281 career major league games -- the longest active streak, and the second-longest to begin a career since Doc Gooden posted a K in 349 consecutive appearances.

Beckett said Tampa's approach was the reason.

"I really don't think they would let me [get strikeouts]," he said with a laugh. "I really wasn't in a whole lot of situations where I could throw a bastard pitch here and strike somebody out. It was kind of the way the game was going. Their approach on me was trying to get to me early.

"The game ended up dictating that. They were swinging and not really letting me get ahead or behind and they hit some balls at some guys and it's nice when that happens."

Beckett's career has changed in recent years. He's not that prototypical power guy like he used to be. He said he doesn't feel any different, but hopes he can return to Josh Beckett-like form as the season progresses.

"I don't feel like I'm throwing 85 miles per hour," Beckett said. "I definitely don't throw 95 consistently as I used to, but I would like to think my arm strength is going to get back there this year and I'll probably be touching that again. You've got to locate a little bit better and getting ahead is a little more important because you're not going to be able to throw balls by guys down the middle."

In typical Beckett postgame fashion, he appeared to be fairly miserable when answering questions. It's still too early to know exactly which Josh Beckett will show up for the rest of the season, but when he has an edge, that's usually when he's at his best.