FORT MYERS, Fla. – There was no more dangerous at-bat for the Red Sox on Monday night than from Tampa Bay minor league catcher Nevin Ashley.

Never mind the home run that Ashley sent up into the wind and over the right-field wall in the third inning.

It was Ashley’s dribbler in the fifth inning that had Red Sox followers gasping in panic.

Josh Beckett came off the mound and charged the slow grounder, then slipped while reaching for the ball. He still tried to throw toward first but fired the ball into right field.

Then Beckett rolled onto his chest and stayed there.

It was only for a second, but you could hear the screams from Providence to Presque Isle:

Get up!

Beckett did hop up and resumed pitching without even a visit from the trainer.

After that heart-stopper, it mattered little that Beckett allowed two solo homers and an unearned run. He is still standing. There is no tweak, strain, sprain or tear that will prohibit the Boston Red Sox ace from making his next start.

Beckett will again stand atop a mound Sunday night at Fenway Park in the season opener, against that pesky team in pinstripes.

The results Monday on a 63-degree evening at City of Palms Park were OK for Beckett: six innings, six hits, one walk and eight strikeouts. He threw 94 pitches, 61 for strikes.

“I threw a few more pitches than I think we planned on,” Beckett said. “It all worked out. It’s good.”

Beckett made his third straight start after missing about 10 days because he was ill.

At least a sick Beckett is better than an injured one. He recovered quickly enough, got his work in and is ready for the start of the regular season.

“I feel good,” he said. “Getting back every day was what I needed. Needed to make sure my legs were strong.”

Beckett looked very strong in spurts, striking out five straight over one stretch. He pinpointed his fastball and then came on with change-up after change-up.

“That’s a good pitch for me,” Beckett said. “I had a good feel for it over a couple of innings. There was just a bunch of them together.”

Beckett is always a focus in spring training. If he leaves Florida with confidence, the Red Sox are confident.

But Beckett has been a topic of conversation for reasons besides his pitching. The talk is about his contract, although Beckett is not saying much.

This is the final year of a four-year contract, with Beckett making $12 million this season. He is in negotiations for a new deal; something in the neighborhood of five years for $82.5 million (i.e. John Lackey money) ought to do it.

Beckett has said he will not negotiate a contract once the season begins, which sets Sunday as the deadline.

Asked about the negotiations, Beckett shrugged.

“I don’t have anything right now,” he said.

What he does have is an ability to pitch. He has evolved far beyond his flame-throwing days as a Portland Sea Dog in 2001. And he is past needing his curve to be drop-off-the-table perfect all the time.

Beckett can beat an opponent many ways, though he got the meaningless loss Monday because of Boston’s untimely hitting, poor relief and four errors.

Beckett helps make Boston a contender. He’ll begin earning his $12 million on Sunday.

“Any opening day is fun. It’s an honor,” Beckett said. “But I’ve got to go out and make pitches.”

And be careful with dribblers.


Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at: [email protected]


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