Without a number of their key players, the Boston Red Sox haven’t missed a beat as they’ve taken control of the AL wild card race and recharged their chase of a second straight AL East crown.
Even worse news for the rest of the AL seems to be coming on Friday, when starter Josh Beckett is expected to headline a list of returning Red Sox as the defending World Series champions go for a ninth straight victory over the host Texas Rangers.
Beckett (11-9, 4.34 ERA) hasn’t pitched since Aug. 17, when he allowed eight runs in 2 1-3 innings of a 15-4 loss to Toronto. His arm and elbow problems even prompted a trip to Alabama to visit Dr. James Andrews last Friday.
But tests on his elbow came back clean, and after a successful bullpen session on Tuesday, the right-hander was cleared to pitch Friday in the opener of this three-game series.
He’ll be limited to about 60 pitches in his return, but the Red Sox are simply glad to see Beckett healthy after he went 4-0 with a 1.20 ERA in last year’s playoffs en route to Boston’s second title in four years.
“We’ll cut him short on Friday, which makes it harder to win the game,” manager Terry Francona said. “But after not starting a game, there’s no good way to let a guy go out and throw a bunch of pitches.”
Lowell is expected to play for the first time since Aug. 12 after being out with a right oblique strain. Casey also could be activated from the disabled list, where he has spent the last two weeks with a strained neck, and Youkilis may return to the lineup after missing four games this week with an illness and back spasms.
“We’re in good position to keep on winning,” outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury told the Red Sox’s official Web site.
Even with a depleted roster, the Red Sox (82-57) haven’t had problems recently, as their edge over Minnesota in the wild card race is now bigger than their deficit behind Tampa Bay in the East. Their three-game home sweep of Baltimore this week was their fifth consecutive series victory, and they’ve gone 21-9 since the beginning of August.
Dustin Pedroia, the AL’s leading hitter at .333, has been earning MVP consideration after his recent tear. The 5-foot-7 second baseman, hitting cleanup for much of the last week with Youkilis out, is 21-for-34 (.618) with three home runs and 12 RBIs in his last eight games.
“He’s swinging the heck out of the bat right now,” Boston pitcher Jon Lester said. “It seems like every time you turn around, he’s up to bat with guys on base and comes up clutch every time.”
The Red Sox won their final game against Texas (69-72) last year and have averaged nearly 10 runs while opening this season’s series 7-0. They haven’t played at Arlington since May 2007, but they’ve won four straight and 10 of 14 there.
Boston scored 37 runs in a three-game sweep of Texas at Fenway Park from Aug. 12-14, with the memorable opener a 19-17 win for the Red Sox that came after they blew a 10-0 first-inning lead.
Runs may not be quite as easy to come by against a red-hot Kevin Millwood (9-7, 4.84) on Friday. The right-hander has won three straight starts, following a pair of complete games by allowing two runs in 6 2-3 innings of a 4-3 win over the Angels on Sunday.
Millwood tossed six shutout innings against Boston on April 20 before giving up two runs in the seventh of a game the Red Sox came back to win, 6-5. He’s 4-3 with a 4.05 ERA in 11 career starts against them.
Texas has won three of four, but just nine of its last 27.
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