FORT MYERS, Fla. -- This time of the spring always comes with a qualifier: It's early. Looks and impressions can be deceiving.
But lots of what you see and observe at this time of year can be telling, too. And what Boston pitching coach John Farrell is seeing from ace Josh Beckett could present big trouble for the American League East and other Red Sox opponents this summer.
After battling back and oblique problems for much of 2008, Farrell's gauge so far this spring has Beckett looking more like he did in two seasons ago, when he dominated at 20-7 with a 3.27 ERA, than last summer, when he was 12-10 with a 4.03 ERA.
"He's throwing the baseball more like he did in '07 than '08," Farrell says. "The ailments he had to contend with, his back, his oblique ... that's all cleaned up."
Not only is Beckett far better physically than he was for most of '08, the fiery look in his eyes that meant trouble for others as he was leading the Red Sox to the '07 World Series title is back, too.
"There's an apparent demeanor about him right now," Farrell says. "Every time he's stepped on the mound in the bullpen, this is what it was like in '07."
Beckett, who is slated to pitch Sunday afternoon's Grapefruit League game against Minnesota, tried to pitch last October with a torn or pulled oblique -- depending on whom you believe -- and it did not go well.
In one start against the Los Angeles Angels in the AL Divisional Series, Beckett was hammered for four earned runs and nine hits in only five innings.
In two starts against Tampa Bay in the AL Championship Series, the Rays torched him for 10 earned runs and 13 hits in just 9 1/3 innings.
"The standard he sets for himself ... walking away last year, I know he wasn't pleased. We have a lot of quality pitchers here, and this is not to degrade them in any way. But Josh is our leader. He sets the tone.
"Granted, it's only February, but the tone he's set in this camp is important."
Likes: Hate to see John Smoltz in a uniform other than Atlanta's, but love to see him still pitching. He says he's ahead of schedule following his shoulder surgery, though he's still not expected to pitch before June. But if he and Brad Penny (shoulder issues last year) return to form and join Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, Jon Lester and even Clay Buchholz, one Red Sox strength by mid- and late-summer should be the depth of their pitching. "This group has a chance to be exceptional," pitching coach John Farrell says. ... Sign in the Red Sox clubhouse: "Work hard, play hard, listen hard." I may hang that one in my daughter's room. ... You can tell it's fund-raising time at PBS when they run Roy Orbison and Friends: Black and White Night. Have to say, though, that never gets old. It's an exceptional concert, with guests Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, T-Bone Burnett, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello and others.
Dislikes: No concerts are lining up with my spring travels so far. There isn't a lot of down time at this time of year, anyway. As a writer, you're usually in a team's camp by 8 or so in the morning, and it's often dinnertime or later until you're finished interviewing and writing (and, this year, shooting videos). Still, it's fun when you happen to be somewhere where there's a show -- in the past in Florida I've seen Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Buffett and Bonnie Raitt, among others. So far, though, no go this spring.
Sunblock day? Yessir. On a roll here with a bright sun and temperatures near 80. But alas, on the eastern side of the state, at least, it is supposed to rain Sunday and cool down into the 60s through midweek.
Rock 'N' Roll Lyric of the Day
"Don’t gimme that look, that’s right, let’s get sweaty
"Let’s get real sweaty
"I’m talkin’ rainforest sweaty
"I’m talkin’ swamp sweaty
"Let’s fill the bathtub full of sweat"
-- Jackie Moon, Love Me Sexy
(Or, as you better know him, Will Ferrell, in Semi Pro).