SARASOTA, Fla. — It was a year ago this week that Jalen Beeks’s career changed in a span of two innings.
The Red Sox had selected Beeks to pitch against Team USA in an exhibition game at JetBlue Park. Facing a lineup of All-Stars who went on to win the World Baseball Classic, the lefthander threw two scoreless innings.
At the time, the Sox were contemplating whether to move Beeks into the bullpen. But the impressive outing helped keep him working as a starter.
Beeks had a 2.19 earned run average in nine starts for Double A Portland, earning him a promotion to Triple A Pawtucket. He had a 3.86 ERA in 17 games there.
The Sox named Beeks their minor league pitcher of the year in September, added him to the 40-man roster in November, and invited him to the organization’s rookie development program in January.
It all started with the success against Team USA.
“It seemed to carry into the season for me,” Beeks said. “I’ve always tried to pitch with confidence. But getting those guys out gave me a definite boost.”
Now Beeks has a chance to impress the major league coaches and be positioned for a call-up to the majors when the need arises.
“You don’t know what’s in their minds,” said Beeks, a 24-year-old who was taken in the 12th round of the 2014 draft. “I can only really worry about myself. That’s how I approach the game.”
Until last season, Beeks was perhaps best known among Red Sox fans for having played with Andrew Benintendi at the University of Arkansas in 2014. Now he could have a significant impact on the major league team.
“I feel ready for whenever I have to get on the mound, whether it’s in Pawtucket or the big leagues,” Beeks said. “Wherever it is, I’m ready. You can’t let the moment get too big.”
On Sunday before a sellout crowd at Ed Smith Stadium, Beeks faced a Baltimore Orioles lineup that included Tim Beckham, Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, and Trey Mancini.
In spring training, that’s a big moment.
Beeks left two runners stranded in the first and another in the second. He struck out Beckham to start the third inning before Schoop singled and Machado walked.
“It seemed like he ran out of gas a little bit and lost his command,” manager Alex Cora said.
With Beeks at 48 pitches, lefthander Matthew Kent came in and allowed the two inherited runners to score.
“I struggled, a bent-not-break kind of deal,” Beeks said. “All my pitches were effective at some point, but not consistently effective. It’s definitely more fun to face those guys. I want to pitch against the best always.”
What irritated Beeks the most was walking Machado twice. He didn’t want to give in to one of the best hitters in the game.
“I hate walking guys,” he said. “I battled. I can hang my hat on going out there and giving my all. I need to work on my stuff and be better next time. But I was going after him. I believe in going right after guys.”
At 5 feet 11 inches and 195 pounds, Beeks is one of the smallest pitchers in camp. But he compensates by being able to throw four pitches for strikes, using a changeup and cutter to keep hitters from getting too comfortable with a modest fastball.
Beeks averaged 6.2 strikeouts per nine innings with Single A Greenville in 2015. By last season, he had bumped that up to 9.6 with Portland and Pawtucket.
Durability is another plus. In three full seasons, Beeks has made 26 starts each year and earned a midseason promotion the last two.
Beeks will likely start the season in Pawtucket’s rotation. He, Hector Velazquez, and Roenis Elias will be among the candidates when the Red Sox need a starter during the season.
Cora compared Beeks with Brian Johnson, another Sox lefty who makes do with what he has.
“They can pitch,” the manager said. “They understand who they are. If you don’t throw 98, why try and pitch like somebody who throws hard? Use your fastball in the right spots. You can go a long ways with that.
“He uses that fastball up in the zone, mixing up pitches, very comfortable on the mound. Very quiet kid, and that shows on the mound, a lot of poise.”
Beeks has spent his time in camp studying how Chris Sale and the other major league starters prepare for their outings. Even the most routine drill can be revealing.
“I’m here to learn what it takes,” he said. “You watch those guys and what they do and hopefully it helps when it’s your turn.”