Beckett takes on Big Unit

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NEW YORK (AP) – When Josh Beckett last took the mound at Yankee Stadium, he pitched a five-hit shutout on three days’ rest to win the 2003 World Series for the Florida Marlins.

Traded to Boston during the offseason, Beckett returns Tuesday night when the Red Sox make their first visit of the year to New York.

Of course, the stakes will be far lower.

“If he goes out and throws a no-hitter, good for us,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “If he happens to get hit, it’s not the end of the season.”

New York starts Randy Johnson, who was 5-0 against the Red Sox last year, a key factor in New York’s eighth straight AL East title. He beat Boston in the season opener at Yankee Stadium and defeated the Red Sox on the next-to-last day of the regular season at Fenway Park to clinch the division.

“I don’t get all hyped up about it,” the Big Unit said. “When I pitched in the World Series, that was different.”

New York and Boston enter the three-game series in familiar positions – first and second in the AL East. The Yankees are 18-11 and have won a season-high five straight. Boston is percentage points behind at 19-12 and has won four in a row.

Mike Mussina faces off against Boston’s Curt Schilling on Wednesday in another marquee matchup – both are 5-1 – and Shawn Chacon (4-1) pitches for New York on Thursday against Tim Wakefield (2-4).

When the teams played their first series of the season last week at Fenway Park, the Red Sox won 7-3 in Johnny Damon’s first game back in Boston, and the second game of the two-game series was rained out. Damon will be facing the Red Sox in pinstripes for the first time.

“It’s going to be great,” he said. “I’ve never faced Josh Beckett, so there’s a lot of learning I’m going to do.”

After beating Texas, Toronto and Seattle in his first three starts, Beckett had a no-decision at the Blue Jays and lost at Cleveland, his ERA rising from 1.29 to 4.50 in his last two outings.

Johnson is 5-2 despite a 5.02 ERA and allowing five or more runs in three of his last four starts.

“I think a lot of players go about it as if it’s just another game,” he said. “It’s great for the media and great for the fans, but if you let that overcome what you’re trying to do, you’re going to be not focused.”

New York right fielder Gary Sheffield might miss the series. Injured April 29 when he collided with Toronto’s Shea Hillenbrand at first base, Sheffield said Sunday he won’t play again until his left wrist is healthy.

He was examined Monday by a hand specialist in Manhattan.

“I won’t have anything until tomorrow,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said, citing a desire to speak with Sheffield before publicly discussing the latest diagnosis.

Notes: Yankees RHP Octavio Dotel, coming back from elbow surgery last year, allowed one hit and struck out two in two scoreless innings during an extended spring training game against Philadelphia minor leaguers. He had not pitched since April 18 due to tendinitis. “I hope tomorrow I feel the same way I do today,” Dotel said. … Yankees RHP Carl Pavano (bruised left buttocks) said he is set to join Double-A Trenton for his next rehabilitation start, which could be Friday. He is on line to rejoin the Yankees’ rotation by late May or early June. … Yankees RHP Jesus Colome (shoulder) is throwing at 120 feet on level ground.

AP-ES-05-08-06 2006EDT

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