SEATTLE – Josh Beckett was joking in the dugout prior to his return to Boston’s rotation tonight at Seattle.

Tim Wakefield isn’t laughing nearly as much.

The 43-year-old knuckleballer is heading back to Boston’s bullpen as Beckett, the two-time All-Star and former World Series MVP, returns from the disabled list to make his first start since mid-May.

“Well, I don’t think he wanted to hug me,” Red Sox Manager Terry Francona said of Wakefield’s reaction.

“I guess we do what’s best for the team, explain it. Regardless of who you are, we try to have the same attitude: put the team first.”

Boston went into Thursday’s games 2-5 since the All-Star break and seven games out in the AL East.

Wakefield is 3-8 with a 5.58 ERA. He was unable to hold onto a 4-0 lead in Tuesday’s loss at Oakland.

Francona said Wakefield will be ready “if we need him again (in the rotation), which I don’t doubt we will.”

Beckett is ready, following Boston’s patient approach to his low back strain. He is 1-1 with a 7.29 ERA in eight starts this season, but Francona remarked how good Beckett looked during a recent minor-league rehabilitation stint.

“Now, he may not throw a no-hitter (tonight), but he’s got good arm strength and he’s got real good arm speed. And you can hear him in the dugout (on this road trip) making stupid comments, which is good,” Francona said jokingly.

Beckett said he didn’t want to talk Thursday, but he’d be plenty available this weekend. He hasn’t pitched for the Red Sox since May 18, when he lasted 42/3 innings against the Yankees and allowed five runs.

Even before Beckett started feeling back pain, he was struggling.

He allowed five runs on opening night against New York. A day later, he agreed to a $68 million, four-year contract extension, then allowed seven runs to Texas and eight at Toronto in consecutive starts in late April.

“I think he tried to live up to his contract. Not in a bad way,” Francona said. “He’s a conscientious kid.”