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02/17/11 1:56 PM EST

Mound of optimism in Boston

Staff could be force if vets rebound to join with two young stars

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There are no rotation photo ops, not like last February, certainly not like there were in Clearwater three hours up I-75 earlier this week.

"We have a chance to have a 100-win pitching staff," says Josh Beckett. "A chance. We just have to pitch the way we're all supposed to, not the way we pitched last season."

Beckett and John Lackey were besieged with questions about last year's Red Sox rotation being the best in the American League, if not the game. Oh, the bullpen helped them blow 41 games in which they were tied or ahead, but as Beckett says bluntly, "We didn't pitch very well getting to the bullpen."

Indeed, while the starters' record was 70-50, their ERA was 4.17, and that was with Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz going 36-16 and maturing into elite starters. Beckett hurt his back, then lost his swagger, and ended up 6-6 with a 5.78 ERA. Daisuke Matsuzaka was 9-6, 4.69. Lackey heard it from fans, but he did win 14 games with a disappointing 4.40 ERA and led the team in quality starts.

"We can be better," says Lackey. "If we all do our jobs, we can be one of the best rotations in the league, if not the best."

Lester was 19-9 with 225 strikeouts and 167 hits allowed in 208 innings.

"There's a lot I can improve on," he says. "I'd like to get off to a better start, and I can improve the command of all my pitches, be more consistent."

Adrian Gonzalez is going to talk to him about how throwing his changeup in to left-handed hitters -- a practice started by Greg Maddux -- can make him even better. And once Buchholz commanded his two-seam fastball, and to a lesser extent his cutter, he rolled off to a 17-7 record and a 2.33 ERA, with 142 hits allowed in 173 2/3 innings.

"Learning that I don't have to try to strike people out made a huge difference," says Buchholz. "I can get into hitters' counts and get easy outs with my fastball, which I never thought I could do before."

Given his devastating changeup and breaking ball, Buchholz found that he could get early-count swings and cut down on his pitch count.

"We know what Lester and Buchholz can be," says manager Terry Francona. "Two top starters in their mid-20s is pretty tough to find. We have them."

Beckett this spring is focusing on the command of his fastball to the four quadrants, cutting back on his cutter and trying to be more consistent with his curveball. Lackey came into camp having lost 10-15 pounds. Matsuzaka took to a strenuous conditioning program over the winter and appears redefined; he's also trying to work on his changeup.

"The fact that the club went out and built up the bullpen will make our jobs easier," says Lester.

Jonathan Papelbon is convinced mechanical issues caused him so many problems getting ahead with his fastball. Daniel Bard ("He might be the best reliever in the game in another year," says Francona) and Bobby Jenks can pitch the seventh and eighth. Dan Wheeler has been reliable for years. Tim Wakefield says he is now accustomed to the bullpen.

They have four left-handers competing for two spots to open the season. Twenty-two-year-old Felix Doubront will probably open the season starting in Pawtucket, but they were very encouraged by Rich Hill's scoreless September after he dropped down to throw his fastball for strikes. They re-signed workhorse Hideki Okajima, who after coming off a back injury and firing his interpreter (really) had a 1.32 ERA over the final five weeks. In time, they hope Andrew Miller, at age 25, will get back to the delivery he had when he was drafted in the first round and signed with Detroit for $5.5 million in 2006, with the notion that he could end up being a dominant left-handed reliever.

"Let's face it, everyone has a really good feeling about this season," says Lackey. "You figure adding Gonzalez and [Carl] Crawford [and] getting Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury healthy should make for one of the best offensive teams in the game. Having Crawford and Ellsbury in the outfield together should be huge, and Pedroia and Gonzalez are Gold Glove defensive players.

"Give us all the help they've gotten for the bullpen, and all we have to do is pitch the way we're supposed to."

The fact that, during a season in which the veteran starters believed they underperformed, Lester and Buchholz emerged as front-enders should allow Beckett, Lackey and Matsuzaka to go through the spring in the shadows, without expectations.

"It's a good situation for all of us having the attention on the offense," says Beckett. "We can go do our work as if it's no big deal."

It is a big deal, of course, but with Crawford, Gonzalez, Pedroia, Youkilis and Ellsbury in the spotlight, it is simply a working spring.

"My father told me to throw away the rearview mirror," says Beckett, "and concentrate on the task at hand. That's what I'm doing."

Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.