Beckett prepared for playoff challenge

Beckett prepared for playoff challenge

BOSTON -- There was a time -- and it is in anyone's 2003 baseball history section -- that Josh Beckett could go on a roll with his electric stuff and basically carry a team for a couple of weeks.

These are much different times for Beckett, who now does his work for the Boston Red Sox, and not those Florida Marlins that he helped will to a World Series title four years ago.

At a seasoned 27 years old, the ace of the Boston Red Sox is in the prime of his career. Now he's at a point -- and it seemingly started with his first nod of the year on that frigid April night in Kansas City -- where Beckett can carry a pitching staff for an entire season.

Not only has Beckett demonstrated that all year long, but it's a challenge he relishes.

"We rely on him a lot," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "I think he enjoys that."

It starts in Game 1 of the Division Series, when it is Beckett who leads the Red Sox into October play against the Angels of Anaheim.

The difference-maker for Beckett this season is that he's as strong mentally as he is physically.

"I feel as good as I ever have," said Beckett. "We have a lot of guys who are working with me between starts to make sure I'm fresh every five or six days. I feel fine. It all comes down to executing pitches. When you don't have those nagging injuries it makes it a little easier on what we need to do."

All the Red Sox need Beckett to do is dominate. Well, at least to the degree he did during the regular season, when he went 20-7 with a 3.27 ERA and recorded 194 strikeouts over 200 2/3 innings.

When the year started, Curt Schilling was the unquestioned ace of the Red Sox. Beckett made it clear early that was no longer the case.

"I'm so proud of what he's done to this point," said Schilling. "I saw [the struggles] last year, I saw the attempt in Spring Training to change and make adjustments, and now it's playing out. It's fun to watch. He's as good a pitcher as there is in the big leagues right now."

It's hard to believe the Beckett of 2007 is the same man who surrendered 36 homers last year and had a 5.01 ERA. Beckett -- 17 longballs allowed in '07 -- more than halved the homers while refining every part of his arsenal.

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The fastball that seemed to be over the middle of the plate so many times in 2006 has been filthy, and on the corners, this year. The curve and changeup that Beckett abandoned at times last year? They've been ever-present.

"I think with everything with him coming over last year, with so much hype and so much expected of him, and with the whole home-run thing, people might have been down on him a little," said Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell, who was traded to Boston with Beckett in Nov. 2005. "He just used his offseason wisely and he's really been our ace. He's been unbelievable, especially after games where we've needed somebody to give us a big start. He's done that. Twenty [wins] is a great benchmark. He's hopefully rallying all his points for the Cy Young, that would be great."

And as Lowell witnessed first-hand in their October to remember in Florida, a hot Beckett can take a team a long way this time of year. This year? Lowell has watched Beckett mature before his very eyes and become an every-fifth-day horse.

"I think this year, on more than a couple of times, he's been able to bear down and give us quality starts and just be the guy," Lowell said. "He's been our guy the whole year."

The Red Sox have other arms they will count on during October, be it Schilling or Daisuke Matsuzaka in the rotation, and Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima, Eric Gagne, Manny Delcarmen and Mike Timlin in the bullpen. But with Beckett being the team's No. 1 starter, he just might carry the largest burden of all.

Beckett's last taste of the postseason was that epic run of '03, which was completed with a masterpiece in Game 6 at Yankee Stadium, on three days' rest no less.

"There's nothing like pitching in the playoffs and being a part of that, and contributing and trying to help a team win a world championship," said Beckett. "It's the ultimate goal."

Beckett has tasted it before. Now he wants to duplicate it in a different uniform, and coming on the heels of what has already been the best baseball season of his life.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.