|Josh Beckett returns and proves his ankle isn't a problem by delivering a much-needed win. (Getty Images)|
BOSTON -- Let's be honest here.
This isn't just about a wild-card race for the Red Sox. It never was.
Oh sure, if the Rays found some way to catch the Red Sox in these final weeks of the season, it would be one of the worst collapses in baseball history, a legendary collapse.
But if this Red Sox team survives the Rays and then goes out quietly in the first round of the playoffs, it's not as if they'll be remembered fondly around here, either. This was never a team built just to get to October, and getting there was always going to be just a necessary step on the way to something bigger.
That's why every game the Red Sox play right now is viewed through two prisms. That's why Friday's 4-3 win over the Rays felt like such a big deal.
Yes, the Red Sox desperately need Beckett to be Beckett, given that even with Beckett and Jon Lester atop the rotation, they have trouble identifying a quality No. 3 starter. But to hear the Red Sox tell it, even before Friday's game, they fully believed that the ankle that cost him a start was not going to be an issue.
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They knew much less about what they would see in the eighth inning from Bard. And just as they need Beckett in the rotation, they need an effective Bard, setting up Jonathan Papelbon, who is once more a dependable closer.
As manager Terry Francona put it earlier this week, "I don't think we can win without Bard being Bard."
The last three times out before Friday, Bard had three losses, allowing nine runs on four hits and five walks.
The last few days, it was Bard -- and not Beckett -- whom the Red Sox spent time trying to fix. Francona talked to him. Mike Cather, a one-time Red Sox minor-league pitching coach who now works as an advance scout, gave some advice.
Beckett talked to him.
Friday, Francona went right back to him in the eighth inning, with a one-run lead. And this time Bard delivered, albeit with a little help from third-base umpire Bob Davidson (calling Johnny Damon out on a controversial swing/hit-by-pitch to begin the inning).
He pitched a scoreless and hitless eighth, striking out three.
"He's Daniel Bard," Beckett said. "I want him pitching the eighth inning every game I pitch. .. for the rest of my career."
Beckett said he delivered the same message to Bard the other day.
"I told him there's not anyone I would rather have in my foxhole than him," Beckett said.
Beckett was characteristically dismissive of his own effort Friday, pointing out that he only pitched six innings and calling the two-run Rays first inning "kind of a debacle."
But the long-term question about Beckett was only whether he was healthy, whether the right ankle he sprained on Sept. 5 in Toronto would hinder him in any way. Beckett has already proven this year that he's a lot more like the guy who was a postseason stud in 2003 and 2007 than the guy who had a 5.78 ERA last year.
A healthy Beckett gives the Red Sox two proven front-line starters, which is one more than the Yankees have.
An effective Bard gives the Red Sox a back end of the bullpen like the Yankees have. This is a guy who from June through August had a 0.99 ERA, a .391 opponents OPS and 38 strikeouts with just eight walks.
All the talks the last couple of days have been designed to remind him of that, and to get him back to that.
"[Francona] expressed that he had confidence in me," Bard said. "I said good, because I still have confidence in myself. He's a loyal guy. He's loyal to players who have proven themselves."
He's also a manager who can see what matters over the longer term, even when the short-term results may have the fans in panic mode.
That's not to say that Francona didn't care about winning Friday night. Obviously, he cared very much.
But he also understood that this Red Sox season wasn't going to be declared a success on Friday, and it stands a lot better chance of ending as a success with a dependable Bard to pitch the eighth inning.
The Red Sox players understand that, too. Yes, David Ortiz last week talked about panicking, but the Red Sox haven't had the look of a team in panic mode.
"We're a good team," Beckett said Friday night. "It's going to happen. We were just in a bad stretch at a bad time."
That's true, but now that they seem ready to survive this bad stretch, the Red Sox can focus on not having another bad stretch at an even worse time -- during the playoffs.
And Bard is huge for that.
"The whole team's been awesome, telling me, 'We need you to go where we want to go,'" Bard said.
Let's remember, the wild-card title was never where the Red Sox wanted to go. All it could be was a step along the way.