BOSTON -- It's far too early to label Friday's start a "make-or-break'' outing for Allen Webster. After all, Webster is just 23 and, by every account, has a promising future.
But if that immediate future is going to be in Boston, Webster will need to show significant improvement in this, his fourth major-league start.
For all his talent and the quality of his stuff, the last two appearances with the Sox have, frankly, called into question Webster's readiness for the big leagues.
On May 8, he couldn't get through the second inning against Minnesota, knocked around for eight runs on six hits. Last Saturday in Detroit represented some improvement -- but not much. Webster gave up five runs on eight hits to the Tigers.
In both games, Webster stumbled in the first inning. He yielded four runs in the start to Minnesota when he couldn't command his fastball and consistently put himself in hitter's counts. Though his fastball command was somewhat better last weekend at Comerica Park, the results weren't as Victor Martinez belted a grand slam to give Detroit a 4-0 lead.
There were, however, hints at progress on Saturday. After the four-run first inning, Webster gave up only one more run over his final 3 1/3 innings. And he held dangerous duo of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder hitless in four at-bats, with a walk.
"There's no question the stuff is there and it's major league-caliber,'' remarked John Farrell after Webster's last start.
What hasn't been there is the results. Webster is personally 0-2 with an 11.25 ERA in his three starts; the Red Sox are 0-3 in games in which he's started.
Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves have been working with Webster on his pre-start routine, and it's possible they'll have him stop and start some during his bullpen Friday night in an effort to replicate game conditions and alleviate some early-game jitters.
With Clay Buchholz likely sidelined until after the All-Star break as he deals with bursitis, Webster could get as many as three more starts before Buchholz is cleared to return. What he does with those chances will determine whether he stays in Boston or returns to Pawtucket to refine his game.
Farrell has demonstated a willingness to run the Red Sox as a meritocracy: regarless of seniority, past performance or salary, the better player will get playing time. It's already led to change at third base, where Will Middlebrooks played himself out of an everyday role at the precise time that Jose Iglesias was ensuring regular at-bats with an offensive surge.
Webster's been given a chance to earn at least a temporary spot in the rotation, but the invitation isn't without its expiration date. If he doesn't pitch substantially better Friday night, it's likely he'll soon be headed back to Triple-A.
There are alternatives for the Sox. Rubby de la Rosa, his arm strength rebuilt after Tommy John surgery, is one option. Alfredo Aceves, who's specialized of late in parachuting in for spot starts (during which the Sox are 3-0), is another.
It's no surprise that Webster, as highly regarded though he may be, has battled inconsistency in his first three major league starts - it happens to the best of them. Few rookie starters immediately dominate the way, say, Matt Harvey has for the Mets.
But the Sox can't be too patient, either. There's a division to win and Webster needs to show that he can help the team by being more competitive.
If he can't, there are others waiting in the wings.