Josh Beckett continues improbable rebirth

SAN DIEGO -- Baseball players are so constantly confronted with failure, it can be difficult to discern whether the best way out of it is through perseverance or change.

Sometimes, stubbornly sticking it out is the best plan. Other times, it’s a good way to find yourself sitting on your couch watching other guys play in August and September.

Josh Beckett was smart enough to know it was time for something radical.

The Detroit Tigers had started his season out on a bad footing back in April, knocking him out of the game by the fifth inning, having scored five times. Nick Castellanos took him deep.

Out of Beckett’s 85 pitches that day, eight were curveballs. When things got hairy, he did what he always had done: reached back and tried to find a little more fastball. Only this time, at the age of 34 and after having had a rib surgically removed near his pitching shoulder just 10 months earlier, he couldn’t find it.

Instead of pulling out 96 mph, he was finding a lot of 91s and 92s. That’s pretty much the happy zone for many major league hitters.

So when catcher A.J. Ellis approached him with the novel idea of using his curveball -- always one of the most effective in the game -- as the centerpiece of his game plan, he was in a receptive mood.

Beckett, having improbably become one of the most effective starting pitchers in the game at an age when most are seeing their careers slipping away, sees it all in crystal clarity from this vantage point.

After another seven dominant innings in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 4-2 win over the San Diego Padres on Saturday, Beckett is third in the National League with a 2.28 ERA.

Who could have seen that one coming?

“I had to do it. It wasn’t an option,” Beckett said. “I know the Tigers’ lineup probably wasn’t the ideal measuring point for my first start, but it was kind of like, ‘We have to make this adjustment or you don’t pitch again. That’s pretty much it. That’s just what I have to do.’”

Beckett is throwing his curveball roughly a third of the time. By now, opposing teams know it’s coming; but that doesn’t make it any easier to handle for their hitters.

Dodgers catcher Drew Butera saw it as a hitter in an intrasquad game this spring and has seen a lot of it from behind the plate, including the day he caught Beckett’s no-hitter against the Philadelphia Phillies.

He said Beckett’s arm angle when he releases the pitch makes it look like a fastball and that Beckett can throw it at different speeds and to different locations. You’re expecting something in the 90 mph area and you get something at about 73 mph.

“It’s hard to stay back,” Butera said.

Sometimes it’s a strike. Sometimes it’s in the dirt. Beckett’s transformation reminds Butera of another veteran pitcher who lost his fastball and had a vibrant career thereafter: Carl Pavano.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly admits he had no inkling Beckett was primed for this kind of bounce-back season. Last year while pitching with numbness in his fingertips caused by thoracic outlet syndrome, Beckett was laborious on the mound and ineffective in his results. On Friday against a watered-down Padres lineup, he looked barely challenged. He threw one curveball on a 2-and-0 count and several on 1-0 counts.

Watching the Dodgers in the playoffs last year reawakened Beckett’s love for the game. You can’t blame him for having lost some of it after the drudgery of his final couple of years in Boston, his bad 2013 and the surgery.

“I wanted to compete. That was part of what I missed,” Beckett said. “When I came back for those playoff games, I missed the way the guys competed. I wasn’t expecting to go out there and throw the ball the way that I probably have, but I think some of the adjustments I’ve made have been a big key.”

He might think he had to make the changes, but the transaction wires are littered with players who refused to give in.