McAdam: Beckett's test starts now

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McAdam: Beckett's test starts now

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.

Sean McAdam can be reached at smcadam@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Sean on Twitter at http:twitter.comsean_mcadam

McAdam: Red Sox at a loss after excruciating defeat

McAdam: Red Sox at a loss after excruciating defeat

There are still two full months of games left on the schedule and who knows what might happen in that time, or what else might befall the Red Sox.

But for now, it's no stretch to suggest that Thursday's excruciating 2-1 setback in Anaheim constitutes the worst loss of the season to date. The point hardly seems debatable.

Consider:

THE TIMING: This was the start of the longest, and in many ways, most challenging road trip of the season, with 11 games in 11 days. It comes immediately after a homestand that was highly disappointing, featuring a mere split with the last-place Minnesota Twins and a sweep at the hands of the otherwise mediocre Detroit Tigers.

There's been a great deal of attention focused on how many road games the Sox have to play through the rest of the season. Winning the opener -- and snapping a three-game losing streak in the process - would have felt like a strong statement that the club was ready and able to meet the challenges of the schedule.

THE STARTING PITCHER: The loss wiped out a standout performance by David Price, who may well hold the key to whether the Red Sox grab a playoff spot this fall.

Price has been woefully inconsistent in his first season with the Red Sox, alternating between brief stretches of dominance and periods of underwhelming outings.

For a change Thursday night, Price seemed on the verge of winning one of those "statement'' games, when he would make one measly run in the third inning stand up. There have been too many times, given his standing as the team's No. 1 starter, in which Price has pitched just well enough to lose -- like the pitcher's duels in which he came up short against the likes of Madison Bumgarner and Chris Tillman.

But on Thursday, Price didn't buckle. And never mind that he was matched against an aging and depleted Jered Weaver. Price had next-to-nothing with which to work, but he protected the 1-0 lead with a determination he has seldon shown in Boston.

And for his effort to go wasted sets an inauspicious marker for this demanding trip. There was something symbolic about having Price set the tone at the start with a low-scoring, must-have game.

He did his part. Unfortunately for Price, that wasn't enough.

THE WAY IN WHICH IT HAPPENED: Walk-off losses are never pleasant, whether they come on a homer, or a base hit up the middle.

But considering that the Red Sox had the ability to turn Daniel Nava's tapper to first into a game-ending double play, and instead, saw it result in a two-run throwing error on the part of Hanley Ramirez, makes it all the more crushing.

Brad Ziegler, who gave up a go-ahead game-winning homer in the final game of the homestand Wednesday, essentially did his job in the ninth. He got Mike Trout to hit a chopper, which resulted in an infield single. And he kept the ball on the ground and in the infield, with the Sox bringing the infield in with the bases loaded and one out.

Better execution, and the Red Sox walk away with a thrilling 1-0 victory to begin their West Coast trek. Instead, they walk off the field, heads down, with the wrong precedent being set.