Josh Beckett shows warning signs

BOSTON -- Sprained ankle?

That's not as innocuous as it sounds. Let's just say Josh Beckett and the Boston Red Sox are both hoping against hope that the popping sound he heard Monday wasn't the sound of ligaments tearing in his right ankle. Which is an ankle sprain all right, but about as severe as one can be.

Beckett has been an athlete his entire life, long enough to know what a garden-variety sprained ankle feels like. Monday afternoon in Toronto, whatever he felt in his right ankle surely did not feel like that. Otherwise, he would have said so, and the words "just a sprain" would have come out of his mouth.

Instead, this is what he told reporters: "I've never had it happen before. It's something in my ankle, I'm not sure what."

There was nothing in Beckett's last delivery to Brett Lawrie in the fourth inning that suggested a mild sprain of his ankle. He didn't land awkwardly or turn the ankle. He threw a pitch, came up favoring his foot, and grimaced so noticeably that catcher Jason Varitek immediately signaled to the dugout for help.

What might have happened? Beckett's drive leg, the one he uses to push off the rubber, is his right one. As he was driving off with his foot planted on the pitch to Lawrie, he may have torqued his ankle and put an unusual stress on the ligaments. Those ligaments may have stretched. Or torn. A little, or a lot.

That's why the Sox are flying Beckett back to Boston to be examined by foot specialist Dr. George Theodore. They are exercising understandable caution with the man who has been their best pitcher in 2011. Beckett offered another clue that this may be more than your ordinary foot injury.

"It felt like it was locked up and then like it popped in and out of the socket or something," he told reporters.

As Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe noted, it was an encouraging sign that Beckett was able to wear his cowboy boots and did not require crutches upon leaving the ballpark.

"I could wake up tomorrow and feel like playing basketball," Beckett told reporters. "We'll just see."

But Red Sox manager Terry Francona didn't try selling it as something less than worrisome.

"We really don't know,'' Francona told reporters. "It was getting stiff and it was getting sore, so we got him out of there. Now we'll see what's going on in there."

I'm sorry, but that's the first time I've ever heard someone say "we have to see what's going on in there" with a routine sprained ankle.

The Red Sox already know what it's like to try to win without a healthy Beckett in October. In 2008, pitching with an irritated nerve in his elbow and damaged oblique and intercostal muscles, Beckett was knocked around for eight runs in 4 1/3 innings in a Game 2 American League Championship Series loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. Then, in a performance that rivaled in grit and will Pedro Martinez's legendary 1999 relief stint against the Cleveland Indians, Beckett somehow limited the Rays to two runs in five innings in a Game 6 victory.

The Sox lost that series in seven games, capping a season in which the depth of their starting rotation was a problem from start to finish. Curt Schilling re-signed, but never pitched. Clay Buchholz regressed and was left off the postseason roster. A bloated Bartolo Colon got an audition, then essentially walked off the job. Paul Byrd came aboard at the trading deadline.

Francona had no choice but to use a hurting Beckett. His other three starters in the ALCS that year were second-year lefty Jon Lester, knuckleballer Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

His options this autumn are becoming fewer by the day. Matsuzaka is in Fort Myers, rehabbing after elbow surgery. Buchholz has progressed to playing catch, seven weeks after going on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his back.

Before Beckett hurt his ankle, Francona already announced Erik Bedard's next start would be skipped to give his sore left knee a break, the same knee that caused him to miss a month earlier this season while with the Seattle Mariners. That's the same Bedard who has had a history of not being able to stay healthy, as his former GM, Jim Duquette, was more than happy to warn the Sox when they dealt for him at the deadline.

Then there's John Lackey and his 6.11 ERA (5.93 in seven starts since Aug. 1). Enough said.

On Sunday, the day after Triple-A Pawtucket won its division title in the International League, Kyle Weiland woke up thinking his next start would come against the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs. Instead, he was summoned because of Bedard's condition, and with Beckett going down too, his next start is expected to come Friday against the Rays, who are bent on keeping their faint playoff hopes alive.

Wakefield goes Wednesday against the Toronto Blue Jays after being skipped against the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers, and winning his 200th now ranks a distant second to helping the Sox cinch their spot in the playoff tournament, as the Yankees threaten to pull away in the division race, the Bombers' lead now 2½ games.

Andrew Miller, who looked like his next start might not come for a while after he lasted just 1 1/3 innings last Friday against the Rangers, the shortest outing by any Sox starter this season, is back in the rotation, starting Thursday in Toronto.

The Sox still have Lester, a rock. Beckett? He had been the only member of Boston's original starting rotation not to go on the DL this season, a sharp contrast to last season when he missed 58 games with a bad back. Now, he is headed for a doctor's office in Boston. Bad news for Beckett would be crushing news for the Red Sox.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.