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Worth The Weight

The Morning After brings all the usual symptoms. Headache. Dry mouth. Listlessness.

If I feel this bad, Red Sox Fan thinks to himself, how must Beckett feel?

Fan is very concerned about what's going on in Josh Beckett's head, especially after watching him give up seven earned runs in 4innings to the light-hitting A's on July 14—part of a 15-3 Fenway drubbing in which Beckett also served up his major league-leading 27th long ball. Fan has seen the big righthander rage around the mound all season. Seen him shout down Ryan Howard for admiring a towering fly ball in a meaningless spring training game. Seen him scream at Shea Hillenbrand for questioning an umpire's strike call. Seen him pump his fist after early-inning punchouts. So an emotional guy like Beckett would have to be on suicide watch after the A's game, no?

"I'm all right," Beckett says, after completing some day-after-start cardio. His smile seems genuine enough. He's back to work. In just a bit, he'll play some first base during infield practice, shag some fly balls, maybe spit some sunflower seeds. The four-day process of getting ready to pitch again is under way, and the most important part is clearing the memory bank. "The last thing I'm going to do is feel sorry for myself," he says. "I make too much money to play a game I love to ever feel sorry for myself. It would be an insult to everyone for me to whine."

It's a smart take, one that Beckett has made his trademark this season. He won 11 games before the All-Star break, but when he was bad—he made it past five innings in only one of his four first-half losses—he stood up and answered questions thoughtfully and patiently, never short-fused or defiant. He has actually been a tougher quote on the days he's pitched well. Humble in victory and accountable in defeat is never a bad way to go. It helps too that Beckett looks interviewers straight in the eye with his big browns, sprinkles in salty language and manages to be self-deprecating and cocksure at the same time.

Still, there's nothing he could say to quell the fears of The Nation. Expectations for Beckett are off the charts. The weight of being a top pick and $3.6 million bonus baby, not to mention the burden of being the Next Nolan Ryan, must seem like nothing now. Since last Thanksgiving, the day the Red Sox—then led by interim GMs Jed Hoyer and Ben Cherington and team president Larry Lucchino—traded four prospects (including shortstop Hanley Ramírez and righthander Anibal Sánchez) to the Marlins for Beckett and third baseman Mike Lowell, Beckett has been touted as the difference-maker in the pennant race. With a 97 mph fastball, a devastating nose-to-toes curve, a changeup that could put a hitter in traction and a nasty streak to boot, the 26-year-old hurler was supposed to make Boston fans forget what it was like to depend on an aging, improvising Pedro Martínez and remember what it was like to watch a young, highoctane Roger Clemens.

The Beckett trade was baseball's biggest offseason deal. "Bosox Trump Yankees With Their New Ace," shouted the headline in the New York Daily News. From both sides, it seemed that Beckett had tilted the scale of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry in Boston's favor.

But that's not what they're saying on the Morning After. "Tonight's a must-win game," bellows a WEEI talking head. He rambles on about how Curt Schilling now has to clean up the mess Beckett left the Night Before. The co-host finally chimes in: "It's July 15. Come on." They share a nervous chuckle, then proceed to take one call after another from fans uptight about Beckett, who "was supposed to be the guy who held the keys to the Red Sox winning the World Series this year," as co-host No. 1 reminds the listeners. Now, he says, "you have to wonder."

This discussion and dissection will continue through August, September and, The Nation hopes, October. Forget that Beckett is right up there among the league leaders in wins, and that he has lost only once at home. Fans want to know why, by mid-July, he'd already given up 12 more dingers than in his worst season, and why his ERA is hovering in the high fours. And they want to know much more than that. Does he like Boston? His teammates? The American League? Is his shoulder okay? How about the blisters? Does he need to throw the curveball more? Is he showing too much emotion on the mound? Would Theo Epstein have given up so many prospects for him? On WEEI, on the Sons of Sam Horn message boards, on Lansdowne Street beyond The Monstah, it goes on and on and on.

It's mind-numbing … or not. "It's awesome," Beckett says of the red storm. As a Marlin, he was a big fish in a small pond; now that he's had a taste of Boston, he can't imagine doing the reverse commute. "I don't think you could go from here to a place like Florida. To go from this type of environment to something less would be really, really tough."

While he welcomes the buzz, his transition to facing AL lineups hasn't been without bumps and bruises, partly due to his own machismo. The 6'5", 220-pound Beckett is an old-fashioned country boy. He grew up in Spring, Texas, north of Houston, and now owns a ranch southwest of San Antonio, where he hunts deer. He has appeared in ads for the National Rifle Association. On the mound, when in doubt, he rears back and fires. "He's never going to be a touch-and-feel guy," says Red Sox pitching coach Al Nipper. "He will challenge hitters with his fastball." But when hitters have worked the count to their favor this season, Beckett has paid the price.

"His fastball is pretty straight," says a rival AL scout. "So on the days he has been wild in the strike zone, he's given up the long ball. I think over time, the curveball is going to be a more important pitch for him in this league. He may have to learn how to pitch backward more, throwing breaking balls in fastball counts, and vice versa. There's no shame in that. Randy Johnson used that strategy to become an all-time great."

Beckett won't discuss pitch selection, but he does concede that the competition, especially in the AL East, is a little stiffer than in the NL East. "There are no days off in our division," he says. "Even a team like Tampa Bay can beat you up."

Of course, The Nation doesn't want to hear about how tough the Devil Rays are. Winning the AL East was supposed to be Beckett's starting point. From there, he was going to duplicate his 2003 postseason, when he was basically untouchable, most notably in a Game 6, five-hit shutout of the Yankees to clinch the World Series. In New York. On short rest.

"You can't fake your way through a game like that," Lowell says. "You either have what it takes, or you don't." Adds shortstop Alex González, another ex-Marlin, "You need more than good stuff to win that game in Yankee Stadium. You need guts." And Schilling: "You don't pass a tougher test than that one. Any question of 'Can he handle this?' is answered right there."

Or is it?

Here's how Red Sox Fan thinks: While you can't take anything away from what Beckett did in 2003, you also have to remember that he entered those playoffs with a career record of 17—17, and more predictable than his blistering fastball were his blistering fingers. Time and time again, it seemed, when Beckett got on a roll, blisters would flare up. He also had elbow, back, shoulder and oblique problems. All told, in his first four full major league seasons, Beckett never threw more than 179 innings, and he was on the disabled list nine times. He was 41—34 in those seasons, pitching in the offense-deprived National League.

So which matters more, that one glorious postseason, or his larger body of work? Remember, this is Red Sox Fan here. Leading the league in wins is nice, but the high ERA and all those homers are red flags that indicate Beckett may not be the ace he was built up to be. "I wonder if he's hurt," a WEEI caller says. Another frets, "The blisters always have to be in the back of your mind. Hard to believe you'd just outgrow that problem."

The Nation sees and hears all, even little things like the fist pumps and primal screams after big outs. "He did those things in Florida," González says. "Double play to get out of an inning, when we had small crowds, everyone could hear him yelling. There, it was no big deal."

"Every move he makes now is on television," Lowell says. "I don't like how people say he's cocky. To me, he's confident. A cocky guy looks to embarrass the other guy. Josh is confident."

How confident? In 1999, when Beckett was drafted out of Spring High as the No. 2 overall pick, he predicted he'd be in The Show within a year. (It took him two.) And after closing out the World Series, he shouted into the Yankee Stadium crowd, "Go on and get the hell out of here!"

So is that confidence or cockiness? "He's cocky," Schilling says. "So am I. You have to be cocky to be good."

Schilling tried to lay out the "media minefield" for Beckett in the spring: "There are three or four guys he can trust. The rest he can kick to the curb." Schilling also told him, "Every time you leave your apartment in Boston, someone writes about it." But Beckett doesn't duck or hide. The only coverage that upset him was when New England Sports Network cameras zoomed in on his fingers as he gingerly rubbed them in the dugout during a May 15 game at Baltimore. Beckett seethed at the subsequent media buzz that he might be feeling those blisters again. The next day, walking past a group of writers outside the clubhouse, he shouted out, "Speculation!"

Later, in calmer tones, he explained how he's constantly maintaining the skin on his pitching fingers and flaking off calluses. And he asked the writers to please wait on facts before guessing about injuries.

As for Schilling's other advice, Beckett says he's enjoying everything about Boston, from the fans to the restaurants. He's not exactly the second coming of Johnny Damon at Back Bay hot spots, but then again, this Red Sox team isn't the same bunch of Idiots as from 2004. That group partied like the Hilton sisters; this group pitches, plays record-setting defense and shows up at the park looking well-rested. Suffice it to say, Beckett doesn't have to cause a stir to get attention. "Josh is a single guy with an outgoing personality," says ex-teammate and current Yankee Carl Pavano. "In Florida, he could go unnoticed, but I know he's loving the life in Boston."

Beckett proved his love on July 19, when he signed a three-year, $30 million extension. That same day, he shut out the Royals over eight innings, allowing just four hits as the Sox held on
1-0. Win No. 12. Five days later, he avenged the blowout loss to Oakland with a solid six innings. Win No. 13, two shy of his career high.

"The attention you get here is what you make of it," Beckett says. "I can't worry about exterior distractions. As soon as you start doing that, things magnify on you. It's something you have to learn. I mean, when you first get to the big leagues, you worry about everything. There are f—ing Kit Kats in the clubhouse! There's a f—ing ice cream machine! All that stuff. There are different levels of distractions. Eventually you have to block it all out and pitch. That's the only way you can succeed."

Beckett then reiterates his theme: No one should ever feel the least bit sorry for him. Not on days when he can't get out of the second inning (which happened in New York in June). Not on days when he gives up three or more homers (which happened five times before the All-Star break). Not even on days like the Morning After, when it seems as if an entire Nation can't recall a single good game Beckett has thrown in a Red Sox uniform. "I'm not stupid," he says. "I know what I make, and I know about the guy who works 9 to 5. My older brother makes about $20,000 a year. Think he's going to feel sorry for me when I've had a bad day at work? He shouldn't. I know this is a good time in my life."

Entering the stretch drive in his first season in Boston, Josh Beckett is healthy and happy. Will Red Sox Fan ultimately be happy with him? That's an open-ended question, with partial answers provided every fifth day.

And discussion to follow every Morning After.