Beckett better be his nasty self

BOSTON -- There's no doubting the extreme competitive nature of Boston Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett.

His teammates, both past and present, have described his competitive fire in ways that aren't suitable for public consumption. Beckett has lived up to those colorful descriptions and it's about time he adds to that resume when he toes the rubber against the surging Tampa Bay Rays on Friday night at Fenway Park.

The Red Sox need him to be almost unhittable. If he's not, and the Rays mount another win like they did with their 9-2 victory Thursday night, Boston's chances of holding on to its lead in the wild-card race will dwindle.

Boston's lead is down to three games.

Beckett has admitted in the past that he has a more focused approach when he pitches against top teams such as the Rays and New York Yankees.

An ankle injury caused Beckett to leave his last start, on Sept. 5, after pitching 3 2/3 scoreless innings against the Toronto Blue Jays. He allowed three hits, a walk and posted six strikeouts before suffering the injury.

He tossed a side session on Monday with no setbacks, so he was penciled in as Friday's starter. Beckett will face Tampa's James Shields (15-10, 2.70 ERA).

"It'll be nice to see [Beckett] out there healthy," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "We wouldn't pitch him if he wasn't but it'll be nice to see him out there, attacking the zone and being the Josh we've come to rely on. [Tampa] likes their guy, too, but [Beckett] would give us a big lift for sure."

Beckett has thrived against the Rays during his career, especially this season. He's 8-4 with a 2.94 ERA in 18 career starts. He's 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA this season, working 17 scoreless innings in two starts against the Rays. During that stretch he recorded 12 strikeouts with zero walks. Beckett is dominant when pitching against the Rays at Fenway Park, posting a 6-1 record with a 3.11 ERA in 10 starts

"At this point, every game is a big game," Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "Every win counts. Josh has had some rest now, so he's rested and ready to go and the ankle seems fine. We're looking for him to go out there, pitch a good game, and we need our offense to go out there and swing the bats."

Despite the recent ankle injury, Francona said Beckett would not be on a pitch count Friday, but he'll keep a close eye on his ace.

"He hasn't been out very long," Francona said. "I guess we reserve the right to see how he's feeling. We'll check in with him. Because he may look like he's cruising, or assume that he's cruising, if he's laboring inside, so we'll keep an eye on him."

Despite a couple of injuries, including a hyperextended left knee, ankle sprain and a nasty bout with the flu, Beckett has somewhat returned to his 2007 form, when he helped lead the Red Sox to a World Series title.

He's 12-5 with a 2.49 ERA in 27 starts this season, and the Red Sox need him to be at his best and healthy for the remainder of 2011 -- no matter how long it lasts.

"That'll be great," Red Sox slugger David Ortiz said. "One good outing could change things around and hopefully Beckett feels good after coming back from the injury. Hopefully everything goes well for him tomorrow."

If everything doesn't go well for Beckett and the Red Sox, it could mean the season.

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.