By Sean McAdam
CSNNE.com Red Sox Insider Follow @sean_mcadam
In this, his comeback season, Josh Beckett was going to be the Red Sox' difference maker in the post-season.
With a World Series clinching-win at Yankee Stadium in 2003 with the Florida Marlins and a dominant month of October with the Red Sox in 2007, Beckett had already established his playoff bonafides.
Beckett wasn't healthy in 2008 and, with the Red Sox being swept in three games in 2009 and missing the post-season altogether in 2010, this fall was going to be his re-entry into that exclusive club of Big Game Pitchers.
But fate has intervened.
Thanks to the Red Sox' nosedive this month, October has arrived early for Beckett. The big reveal can't wait.
Friday night is the night.
A sense of urgency envelops the Sox. Following their 9-2 thrashing by the Tampa Bay Rays Thursday night, the club's lead in the wild card race is down to three with 13 games remaining.
On Sunday, the Rays will enjoy a decided pitching advantage (David Price vs. Tim Wakefield). If the Sox are going to gain a split of their four-game showdown with the Rays, Beckett has to win Friday night against James Shields.
Shields, of course, will be formidable. Last weekend at Tropicana Field, he came within two outs of a complete-game win. He's beaten the Red Sox twice already this season and lost another start in which he gave up just three runs in eight innings.
So Beckett not only has to pitch well, but he's got to outpitch one of the best starters in the American League tonight.
With a playoff spot at stake.
No pressure, or anything.
Of course, Beckett long ago proved that he enjoys the pressure. It didn't bother him when Jack McKeon pitched him in short rest in Game 6 in 2003, when he was all of 23, with 17 major league wins on his resume.
It didn't bother him in 2007 when, with the Sox facing elimination in the ALCS against Cleveland, he went eight innings in Game 5 and yielded just one run.
The circumstances aren't exactly ideal this evening.
Beckett hasn't pitched since Labor Day when he left the mound in the fourth inning, hampered by a sprained ankle. He missed his next start as Sox were summarily swept at Tropicana Field.
There was talk earlier in the week that Beckett's return would come Thursday night in the opener of the series, but the Red Sox decided it would be better to wait another night. Or maybe the Red Sox wanted their best matched against Tampa Bay's.
Maybe Beckett would have won Thursday's game and given the Red Sox momentum, cooled off the Rays' comeback chances. But that's a moot point now.
It's uncertain how long Beckett will be allowed to go Friday night. It's unlikely he'll be allowed to reach, say, 100 pitches, pitching for the first time in 11 days. And then there's the uncertainty about his ankle, with which he pushes off.
If Beckett's mechanics are at all compromised, if he is off just a little bit, the Sox won't get the same pitcher who's compiled a 2.49 ERA, and who should, with some better fortune, have 17 or wins, rather than 12.
Beckett has been superb against the Yankees this season, beating them four times in five starts with a 1.85. Those outings were encouraging in the first month of the season when everyone was searching for clues as to whether Beckett would rebound from his nightmarish 2010 season.
He answered those questions sufficiently by early June, by which time he had already beaten the Yanks three times.
Now comes another test Friday night, the schedule sped up, the big stage arriving two weeks earlier than scheduled.
Unless the Red Sox find a way to hold off the Rays, there will be no post-season this year for the Red Sox.
The playoffs can wait for now.
Josh Beckett's test is here.