It is not too gratuitously hyperbolic to call Friday night’s game at Fenway Park not only the biggest of the year for the Boston Red Sox, but also for the entire sport – given the Tampa Bay Rays’ frantic stalking of the Red Sox’s lead in the American League wild card race and the general dearth of playoff-race drama in baseball.
When Beckett climbs the mound to face the Rays on Friday night, this will be the situation:
*The Red Sox’s lead over the Rays, which stood at nine games on Sept. 1, will be down to three games. A Tampa Bay win would close the margin to two — the smallest it has been since July — with two more head-to-head games this weekend, and another week and a half left in the season. No team in history has overcome a deficit of nine or more games in September to make the playoffs.
*The Red Sox have lost seven of their past eight games, and 11 of 14 this month. They are 5-10 this season against Tampa Bay.
*Beckett will be making his first start since Sept. 5, when he walked off the mound in Toronto with what was later diagnosed as an ankle sprain. Although the Red Sox say Beckett is fine and has no limitations on him Friday night, they have no idea what the veteran right-hander – in whose starts the Red Sox are 19-8 this season – will give them.
*The Red Sox’s rotation is a disaster. Daisuke Matsuzaka (elbow) is out for the season. Clay Buchholz (back) remains sidelined, and probably can’t start games even if he returns. John Lackey owns by far the highest ERA (6.19) of any pitcher in baseball with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title.
For better or (undoubtedly) worse, Lackey is the Red Sox’s projected Game 3 starter in the Division Series — if they can hold off the Rays and back into a playoff berth. Whatever edge the Red Sox were perceived to have had back in the salad days of July and August, when they seemed to be coasting to the AL East title, was tied to the presence of Beckett and lefty Jon Lester at the top of the rotation. That’s what set them apart from the rest of the projected playoff field, all of whom – New York (CC Sabathia), Detroit (Justin Verlander) and Texas (C.J. Wilson) – boasted only one ace, while the Red Sox themselves held two.
For the Red Sox to have any hope at all — in September, let alone October — they absolutely need Beckett to pitch like the co-ace he has been for most of the season. Even if they get into the playoffs — and both the odds and the schedule favor them over the Rays — without a healthy Beckett the Red Sox are likely to be obliterated by the red-hot Tigers in the first round.
Meantime, Beckett’s opponent Friday night at Fenway Park is James Shields, who hasn’t lost in a month and who has already shut out the Red Sox once this season.
It’s the biggest game of the year, and Beckett is its central figure. By the end, we may have a much clearer idea of what the Red Sox will look like in October, or whether they will get there at all.