Winless Red Sox turn to Josh Beckett

CLEVELAND -- This is why you don't script a baseball season, you just grip it with both hands and hold on for the ride.

When Red Sox manager Terry Francona sat down with pitching coach Curt Young to set up their pitching rotation, they decided that Josh Beckett fit best in the No. 4 spot in part, Francona would say later, because he would draw the Cleveland Indians in his first start. Facing the rebuilding Indians instead of the defending American League champion Texas Rangers would give him the best chance to begin his season with a W.

So the Sox are in Cleveland, after the first three pitchers in their rotation -- Jon Lester, John Lackey and Clay Buchholz -- spent the weekend being roasted on a Texas barbecue spit, needing a win as badly as Beckett does. Forget about easing into the season, Josh. The Sox are looking for Beckett to be their stopper again.

For those who can't look past the Beckett of 2010, the pitcher who missed 58 games with a strained back then hurt a lat muscle near the back of his right shoulder and won just six games with a career-worst 5.78 ERA, that appears to be a stretch.

How bad did it get? Left-handed hitters abused Beckett last season, posting a line of .310/.374/.566/.940 against him. A .566 slugging percentage? Only four hitters in the American League last season had a slugging percentage higher than that, yet Beckett made most lefties look like All-Stars.

A look at a breakdown of Beckett's pitches by Fangraphs offers more evidence of his woes last season. Batters swung and missed at the lowest rate of his career (8.2 percent). His first-strike percentage (58.4 percent) was also the lowest, his first time ever below 60 percent. His percentage of pitches in the strike zone also dropped below 50 percent (47.4) for the first time.

Beckett said there were times last season that he became too enchanted with his cut fastball, and the numbers bear that out. He threw three times as many cutters (15.3 percent) than the year before, while throwing his fastball less than 60 percent of the time for the first time in his career.

It's understandable why he might have been reluctant to use the fastball. That was the pitch he paid most dearly with because it wasn't the explosive Beckett fastball of the past, and when he missed location, hitters teed off. He gave up 20 home runs in just 127 2/3 innings last season, a pace too similar to 2006, his first season in Boston, when he gave up 36 home runs.

Beckett doesn't need a stat sheet to tell him last season was a horror.

"I think his pride took a beating last year," Francona said before the team left Texas on Sunday. "I think he feels like he has a lot to prove."

Despite pitching with mixed results this spring -- on consecutive starts in Bradenton, the Pirates pinned big innings on him -- Beckett projected an air of calm self-assurance. If catcher Jason Varitek is right, there is a good reason for that.

"He has his power back," Varitek said this spring.

Beckett turns 31 on May 15 and has been pitching professionally since 2000. He's still young enough to dial up his velocity, but also at a stage in his career where, as with most power pitchers, being just a gunslinger won't cut it anymore. He is in that transitional stage mastered by those with the most successful careers, the ones who used the knowledge they've gained and the skills they acquired along the way to become complete pitchers.

Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein made a $68 million wager last spring, when he signed Beckett to a four-year contract extension, that he will make that successful transition. For Beckett, it may come down to whether he can remain healthy. His back is no longer a concern, Young said. Beckett said the exercise program he followed in the offseason, with its emphasis on core stability, has paid dividends.

"I feel good," he said in Texas on Sunday. "I'm really noticing the difference now in the everyday [baseball activities]."

In Houston last Wednesday, pitching before a hometown crowd that included his new wife, Holly, and his mother, Beckett held the Astros to one hit in five scoreless innings.

On Tuesday, he returns to the mound, looking to stand tall again.

"He's a big leader on our staff," Francona said. "Wherever he's coming out of the gate, whether it's No. 4 or whatever, he's still a big leader on our staff. Guys look up to him a lot."

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.