BOSTON -- If Josh Beckett loses Friday night, maybe the Red Sox don't get to the playoffs.
But if Josh Beckett doesn't look healthy Friday night, maybe it doesn't matter whether the Red Sox get to the playoffs.
Not to put too much on Beckett, but there might not be a more important player in baseball to watch this weekend. At this point, there's no way there's a more important player on the Red Sox.
The Sox already have a wounded starting rotation, with Daisuke Matsuzaka out for the year, Clay Buchholz still not certain to return (and unlikely to start), and John Lackey owning the worst ERA in the big leagues (6.19) for anyone allowed to make 16 or more starts.
Lackey is still Boston's third starter, and the Red Sox really don't have a fourth or fifth starter. They may be in trouble in October (if they get there), anyway.
But with a healthy Beckett to team with Jon Lester atop the rotation, and a lineup that can still be very dangerous, they'd have a chance.
There's a reason the Red Sox are 19-8 in games Beckett has started this year. There's a reason that Beckett is the one Boston starter that the Rays worry about (they have no runs and two hits in 17 innings against him this year).
There's a reason I wrote, barely two weeks ago, that Beckett was the biggest difference between the Red Sox and the Yankees.
Just six days after I wrote that, Beckett sprained his right ankle in a Sept. 5 start in Toronto. He hasn't pitched since.
The Red Sox say he's healthy now. They say he should be fine, and under no real limitations, for Friday's start against the Rays.
The Red Sox also have a habit of not always being entirely truthful about injuries.
Is Beckett healthy? For Boston's sake, he'd better be.
Without him, they don't stand much chance in October. Without him, they may not even need to worry about October.
On to 3 to Watch:
1. No matter how good or how healthy Beckett is, there's no guarantee he wins, in Rays at Red Sox, Friday night (7:10 ET) at Fenway Park. That's because James Shields is pitching for the Rays, and Shields has two (of his 11) complete games, and one (of his four) shutouts against Boston. Shields hasn't lost to anyone since Aug. 16, when he gave up just three runs on three hits in a complete-game 3-1 loss to Lester at Fenway. As Shields pointed out Thursday, his six final regular-season starts will be Texas, Texas, Boston, Boston, New York, New York. He's halfway through that tough six-game stretch, and so far he's 3-0 with a 0.71 ERA. The 29-year-old Shields is the oldest of the Rays' starters. In fact, if he's still around next year (they could trade him), Shields would be the guy who ends Tampa Bay's major-league record streak of consecutive starts by pitchers under 30 (currently at 751 games).
2. The first team to clinch a playoff spot was the Phillies, who did it earlier this week. But they didn't celebrate, waiting to clinch the division first. So the first team to spray champagne could be the Phillies, whose magic number is two going into Cardinals at Phillies, Friday night (7:05 ET) at Citizens Bank Park (they'd also need a Braves loss to the Mets); or the Tigers, whose magic number is one going into Tigers at A's, Friday night (10:07 ET) at the Coliseum (they could also clinch with an Indians loss in Minnesota). The Phillies starter is Vance Worley, who might not make the playoff rotation but would be second or third for the Yankees or Red Sox. The Tigers starter is Doug Fister, who the Yankees and Red Sox probably should have tried harder to trade for in July.
3. Like the Rays, the Angels aren't done yet. They're 3 1/2 games behind the Rangers in the American League West, and four games back of the Red Sox in the wild card. Unlike the Rays, the Angels don't have five dependable starters. That's why the Angels will bring ace Jered Weaver back on three days' rest to start in Angels at Orioles, Sunday afternoon (1:35 ET) at Camden Yards. By starting Weaver on short rest now, the Angels will be able to start him on normal rest in their final series of the season, against the Rangers.