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It's only April, but it was vintage Beckett

Beckett back to his old self

BOSTON -- The long season ahead looks like a much more pleasant proposition when the Opening Day starter begins in exactly the hoped-for manner, dominating the opposition.

In the case of the Boston Red Sox and Josh Beckett, the Opening Day news seemed even better than that. After a 20-victory season in 2007, followed by a postseason performance for the ages, Beckett was bothered in '08 by a lower back strain and right shoulder inflammation. As a result, 20-7 slipped to 12-10. The Red Sox have much greater pitching depth than most teams, but there was a legitimate question about which Beckett might be on hand for '09; the 2007 model or the less healthy, less imposing '08 pitcher?

With 161 games remaining, it may be just a tad early for conclusions. But it is never too early to make a good, solid first impression of the new season. Beckett was very, very good on Tuesday, and the Red Sox won this Opening Day, 5-3, over the Tampa Bay Rays.

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The quality of the competition made Beckett's performance even more impressive. The last time the Red Sox met the Rays, Tampa Bay was winning the American League Championship Series. The Rays may not have the most powerful offense in the AL, but they have a versatile, persistent attack.

Beckett gave them very little. In seven innings, Beckett allowed just one run on two hits, walking three and striking out 10. In five of the seven innings, he retired the side in order. He had a momentary lapse of command with his breaking ball in the third, allowing two walks that led to Tampa Bay's first run.

But on this cold and damp early April day, this was close to vintage Beckett. He threw the fastball consistently in the mid-90s and he threw it to precise spots. Then he would drop in the curveball at almost 20 mph slower. His changeup was also effective. This has been a largely unhittable combination in the past, and it was that again in this game.

"The way Beckett was throwing, he was phenomenal," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "He just executed so much today. He threw some quality fastballs, especially to some of those left-handers."

"Beckett was really good today -- very good fastball, great command of his offspeed stuff," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "He did not make it easy for us. On an Opening Day, he looked like his old self, I thought."

Red Sox fans will be automatically forgiven for the built-in gloating that this performance provides when contrasted with the Opening Day work of the New York Yankees' new ace, CC Sabathia. Sabathia was knocked out in the fifth inning in a loss to the Baltimore Orioles on Monday. One start will obviously not make or break a season, but there will be a world of difference in the reactions to these two starts. Red Sox fans can find genuine reasons to believe that Beckett will be back in top form. Yankees fans, for the moment at least, will wonder what that $161 million was all about.

Pitching is the game's most valuable commodity. Pitching should be an essential strength of the 2009 Red Sox. In that light, Beckett's superb Opening Day performance was as much encouraging as it was triumphant.

This was Beckett's first Opening Day start for the Red Sox, but he has had plenty of experience in the spot that traditionally goes to the pitcher regarded as the ace of the staff. He made three straight Opening Day starts for the Florida Marlins from 2003-05 and now he adds to his growing stature in Red Sox lore.

Beckett typically rises to the occasion. He has an ERA of 1.54 for his four Opening Day starts. The significance, the honor, the responsibility, none of that is lost on him.

"That's something you're always striving for as a pitcher, to get to that point in your career," Beckett said of the Opening Day start.

There is no problem finding motivation for this task. The problem is not becoming too geared up.

"It was one of those days when I had to kind of control myself at first, with the adrenaline," Beckett said.

Dustin Pedroia's solo home run in the bottom of the first was beneficial in that regard, Beckett said. But on the mound, he did not look like a man who required much assistance.

This was an even more special Opening Day occasion than usual. The Red Sox don't routinely open at home. In fact, they have done so only four times in the past 20 years. The rain, cold, wind and near-zero visibility that got this game postponed on Monday offered some valid reasons for this scheduling pattern. The last Boston pitcher to open the season at home was Pedro Martinez in 2002. The last Red Sox pitcher to start and win on Opening Day at Fenway Park was Aaron Sele in 1995.

This one was an Opening Day worth savoring in Red Sox Nation, on several different levels. It was a victory over the defending AL champions, the team that knocked the Sox out of the 2008 postseason. It was a pitching performance that indicated that Beckett could be back at the top of his considerable form. And it was a much, much better Opening Day start from a top-of-the-rotation pitcher than the one for which the Yankees paid $161 million.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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