Things are looking up

BOSTON -- This was the split-screen vision of how the Red Sox will remain in contention in the American League East:

-- John Lackey in the Fens, stepping up against the robotic Cliff Lee on a night the Sox desperately needed him to be the Lackey in whom they'd bet a big chunk of their future.

-- Josh Beckett 300 or so miles away in Syracuse, pitching in a minor league game to shear away any lingering doubts that he's ready to end what has been a two-month exile on the disabled list.

And at the end of the night, before both screens faded into black, there was Kevin Youkilis, once again reminding one and all why Boston's most valuable player in 2010 may be the bearded guy with the scowl, the skull and the skill to will the Sox back into October.

With Lee one out away from surgically removing the Sox's heart without spilling a single drop of blood, Youkilis doubled home the tying run in the ninth, then drove home the deciding run with a bases-loaded sacrifice fly in the 11th inning of a thrilling 3-2 win over the Texas Rangers.

"Youkilis is just something else,'' said Texas manager Ron Washington, who trusted that Lee, who had held the Sox to just one hit after the first inning until Marco Scutaro led off the ninth with a base hit, could dispose of Youkilis with Scutaro on third and two out.

Instead, Youkilis, who is batting .405 in late and close situations that occur in the seventh inning and beyond, stroked a double into the left-field corner.

"I mean, this guy constantly rises to occasions,'' Washington said. "We always see it against us, and I know they always see it here in Boston."

It is a sight so familiar to the Red Sox that at the start of the inning, manager Terry Francona said he turned to bench coach Demarlo Hale and said, "If we can get to Youks, we'll be OK.''

"It was probably wishful thinking, as good as Lee is,'' Francona said, "but I guess that shows the amount of confidence we have in Youk.''

But on this steamy night on Yawkey Way, it was the sight of Lackey, playing the role of stopper after the Sox had lost the first two games of this series, coupled with word out of Syracuse that Beckett was healthy and strong in his second rehab start for Pawtucket, that offered the Sox the greatest hope of staying within striking distance of the Yankees and Rays.

"You can't say enough about this club,'' said Lackey, who rebounded from a dreadful outing in Toronto (7 ER, 4 2/3 IP) to hold the Rangers to seven hits, six of them singles, in his seven innings. "We got a lot of things going against us right now, but we keep grinding, keep battling. There are a lot of pros in this clubhouse, for sure.''

Lackey had nine wins for the Sox by the break but the ERA was an unwieldy 4.78, and he has yet to run off a string of starts that demonstrated why the Sox had deemed him worthy of an $82.5 million investment over the next five seasons.

Perhaps this was a signal it is coming. Last season for the Angels, Lackey had a 7-4 record with a 3.05 ERA after the break, and in his career he has a better ERA in the second half (3.79) than the first (3.96). He's also come up big in September, with a 19-12 record and 3.56 ERA. If Beckett, who may rejoin the rotation as soon as next week, is back to form, the Sox will be formidable down the stretch.

"I don't know for a fact, but I'm pretty sure my numbers are better in the second half throughout my career,'' Lackey said. "Sometimes bigger guys get rolling a little bit later.

"I'm feeling really strong, feeling really good, about where I am at this point in the season. But it's still about executing pitches.''

With only two wins in their previous nine games, and the Yankees and Rays pulling away, the Sox needed a stay of execution. Youkilis obliged, with the help of sacrifice bunts by Darnell McDonald in both the tying and winning rallies, and a throwing error on McDonald's second bunt by Rangers reliever Alexi Ogando that put runners on second and third with no out.

The bullpen also came up big, with four scoreless innings, the last by Manny Delcarmen, who got the win in his first game back from the DL.

The comeback left Lee winless in his first two starts for Texas since the Rangers traded for him, even though he needed just 83 pitches through the first eight innings, including a six-pitch seventh and a five-pitch eighth.

But his night came down to one pitch against Youkilis.

"I wish I could have that pitch back,'' said Lee, who did not walk a batter for the 10th time in 15 starts and has walked just six in 121 2/3 innings all year. "I'm just going right at him. It was working for me all night. There was no sense to change my approach there.

"Obviously in hindsight, maybe I should have thrown something different, but if I throw it in a better spot I think it's a different result."

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.