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BILL DWYRE

Josh Beckett back on the mound

The pitcher faces down the San Diego Padres for two innings, giving the Dodgers hope that his surgery has made way for a Josh Beckett comeback.

March 02, 2014|Bill Dwyre
  • Josh Beckett, loosening up during a workout last month, made his debut Sunday, pitching for the first time in a game since May 13 of last season.
Josh Beckett, loosening up during a workout last month, made his debut Sunday,… (Paul Sancya / Associated…)

PHOENIX — Sunday was Josh Beckett Day in Dodgerland. No bobblehead dolls. Just a lot of happy people wearing blue.

Beckett was back. Sort of. Think of it in terms of Neil Armstrong on the moon, the "one small step for man" part.

When he took the mound here at Camelback Ranch shortly after 1 p.m., one of the more dominating and successful major league pitchers of the last decade was in a strange place. This was spring training and what he was about to do meant something.

Actually, it meant a lot, both for him and for the team that will pay him $15.75 million this season, the last year of his four-year, $68-million deal.

He was the power-throwing right-hander, the MVP of the 2003 World Series with the winning Florida Marlins and the MVP of the '07 American League Championship Series for the Boston Red Sox, who were en route to winning the World Series. He had been a big player on the big stage.

Now, on this small stage, he had to come up big.

"I didn't sleep very well last night," he would say afterward.

The day was cool for Arizona in March, just 63 degrees at game time. Clouds remaining from the storm that blew through here Saturday hovered above. Beckett didn't need them. He had had enough gloom.

The last time he faced real major league hitters in a game with paying fans in the seats had been May 13. Two days later, on his 33rd birthday, he went on the disabled list.

He had no pain, no specific injury, but something hadn't been right.

"There wasn't the Josh Beckett sharpness," said Rick Honeycutt, Dodgers pitching coach. "The pitches weren't locating well. They were creeping to the middle of the plate."

Dodgers fans groaned. Was the trade that brought him to Los Angeles in 2012 turning out to be a bad deal? Were the stories of Beckett playing golf in Boston while on the disabled list an omen? How about stories, later confirmed by fellow pitcher Jon Lester, of him sitting around the Red Sox clubhouse on non-pitching days, drinking beer and ordering in pizza with John Lackey and Lester, rather than being in the dugout supporting the team. Was that an unheeded warning sign?

Beckett said his only discomfort last year was a tingling and numbness in the fingers on his pitching hand. The public and media seemed skeptical.

By midsummer, as the Dodgers played on and Beckett drifted out of mind, he got a medical opinion and a date for surgery. His condition had been diagnosed as thoracic outlet syndrome, which is pressure on a nerve, probably caused in his case by the repetitive stress of pitching. That's why his fingers tingled, why he had lost feel and control of his pitches.

He had the surgery and it was far from your quick-incision-and-10-stitches deal. They removed his first rib from his shoulder area on his right side to relieve the pressure.

Chris Carpenter, former Cardinals pitcher and a past Cy Young Award winner, had had the surgery, still fairly rare in sports.

"I talked to him," Beckett said, "and he warned me about how invasive this surgery was. For a while afterward, there was no way I could get comfortable, no position I could get myself into. It felt like there was a knife in my back at all times."

Beckett came to spring training a bundle of nerves, but not the kind that hurt.

Manager Don Mattingly said Beckett "was nervous to pitch batting practice."

Honeycutt keynoted the strangeness of the situation, going into Sunday's test outing, when he said, "You are talking here about somebody who had been the best of the best."

Now, based on reputation and on the Dodgers' need to get some value from their remaining $15.75 million, Beckett had been projected as a possible fifth starter, were he to show some of the old stuff. Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Dan Haren were Nos. 1-4, and, for No. 5, Beckett will have to beat out lefty Paul Maholm.

Beckett's days of wine and roses had turned into months of fear and uncertainty.

So there he was, facing the San Diego Padres, with just a fraction of the casual spring crowd of 8,585 having any feel for the significance of what was to unfold in front of them. More were interested in taking cellphone pictures of their 5-year-olds running the bases after the game ended.

First up was Alexi Amarista, a little gnat who played with the Angels for a while and has found a home with the Padres. He can be a pitcher's worst nightmare. His job is to take a bunch of pitches, foul off a bunch more and get on base any way he can. His strike zone is about 6-by-6.

Beckett got him to ground to second. He fooled the next batter, Cameron Maybin, with a slow curve that was bounced to third. Then Yonder Alonso singled. That turned out to be the only damage.

Beckett struck out Xavier Nady to end the first, then fanned two more in a hitless second inning, and the report card was good.

In two innings, he gave up no runs and one hit and struck out three. He threw 28 pitches and 18 were strikes. His top velocity was in the 90-91 mph range.

He was asked if he considered this a significant hurdle. He said yes and admitted he was somewhat surprised at how well it went.

Hurdles remain. No comeback is defined by two innings. But in this game of hope, Dodgers fans now have a bit more.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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