CLEVELAND -- When the Red Sox slotted Josh Beckett fourth in their starting rotation last month, it was with the idea that they could ease him into 2011 without exposing him to a difficult Texas Rangers lineup in his first start.
With the benefit of hindsight, it might not have mattered if the Sox had started Cy Young himself over the weekend in Arlington, where the Rangers bashed Boston pitching for 11 homers and 26 runs.
But the larger point remains: Beckett needs a fresh start after a 2010 season that began poorly -- then got impossibly worse.
The six wins Beckett earned were a career-low since he established himself in the big leagues, and his 5.78 ERA was easily the highest of his career.
A chastened and embarrassed Beckett returned to his native Texas over the winter determined to turn things around. He worked diligently with a trainer, as usual, but focused more on improving his core strength -- the better to avoid nagging back flareups which twice sidelined Beckett last season.
There were other changes, too. With input from new pitching coach Curt Young and others in the organization, Beckett fine-tuned his delivery this spring, seeking a more consistent release point.
And there was more: One person in the organization, watching Beckett throw in the opening of week of spring, spotted Beckett's grip on the baseball as he readied his delivery, meaning he was effectively tipping his pitches to hitters.
Together, the staff worked to streamline Beckett's mechanics, working toward a consistent release point for all his pitches, less movement during his delivery and a better disguise on his grip.
The changes, predictably, took some time. Beckett had two starts against Pittsburgh in one week, both of which featured big innings in which he was unable to work out of trouble.
But in his last two outings, and in particular, last Wednesday night in Houston, Beckett was his old dominant self.
"He never threw the ball like that all of last year,'' marveled one talent evaluator of his start against the Astros.
Even Beckett, notoriously difficult on himself, couldn't hide his satisfaction.
"I was really excited about the last two starts,'' he said, "the way the adjustments started to feel, the adjustments that we had made earlier in the spring. I took those adjustments into the game immediately, but they don't always show up right away. My last two, I really felt like they started clicking.''
Last Wednesday, in fact, looked like Beckett circa 2007, when he was arguably the best right-hander in the American League, first winning 20 games during the season and then all four of his postseason starts, leading the Sox to a title.
His fastball had great life. His changeup, which he threw too hard at times after coming to the American League, offered great deception. Only his curve looked as though it still needed work.
"I got more and more comfortable incorporating the adjustments,'' he said. "It's hard to make adjustments and then not revert back to something else during the game. That's when you know they're starting to feel comfortable, whenever they're the most natural thing you go to.''
Many observers believe Beckett may well hold the key to the 2011 Red Sox rotation.
Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz -- results of the first series notwithstanding -- are established front-of-the-rotation starters and John Lackey, though inconsistent, can usually offer his team innings.
Should Beckett re-discover the form he showed in 2007 and for long stretches of 2009, the rotation could truly be top-notch.
Motivation should not be an issue. Manager Terry Francona noted that Beckett was particularly attentive and focused from the beginning of camp. Not one for analyzing himself much off the field, he has mostly been low-key all spring, preferring to concentrate on work rather than making forecasts about his season.
If the demotion from one-time ace to No. 4 in the rotation -- whatever the reasons -- got to him, he did nothing to show it.
"It is what it is,'' said Beckett. "I've got to go out and pitch well on my day, one way or another, whatever day it is.''
But Francona feels that Beckett is a man on a mission: not because of where he is in the rotation this year, but what he did -- or more accurately, didn't do -- last year.
"I think his pride took a beating last year," Francona said. "I definitely agree with that. I think he feels like he has a lot to prove."
He can start Tuesday night when he makes his first start in Cleveland since Game Five of the 2007 ALCS. That night, with the Red Sox facing elimination, Beckett was brilliant, limiting the Indians to one run over eight innings while striking out 11.
Even with the Sox off to a nightmarish 0-3 start this season, the stakes aren't quite as high.
Then again, for a quietly determined Josh Beckett, maybe they are.