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Beckett, Bard follow the script

BOSTON -- The Boston Red Sox needed pitcher Josh Beckett to do one thing and one thing only Friday night.

"We need him to be Beckett. We don't need him to be Beckett in name only," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "Despite what's been happening, we want him to pitch effectively."

Beckett did.

Since he had been removed from his previous start Sept. 5 because of a right ankle sprain and hadn't pitched until Friday night, there were some concerns about whether he would be healthy enough to subdue the surging Tampa Bay Rays and keep Boston's marginal lead in the American League wild-card race intact.

He put those concerns to rest. No rust. No physical issues. No problems.

The veteran right-hander worked six innings and allowed three runs (two earned) on seven hits with one walk and seven strikeouts, and improved to 13-5. He has dominated the Rays this season and has allowed only two earned runs in 23 innings in three starts.

Fortunately for Beckett and the Red Sox, Boston's offense responded every time Tampa scored Friday night. The Rays scored two in the first inning. The Sox scored two in the first inning. Tampa scored one in the third inning. Boston scored one in the third inning.

The Sox's game-winning run came in the bottom of the fourth inning when Mike Aviles, who started at third base in place of the injured Kevin Youkilis, crushed a solo home run with two outs.

"He got a pitch he could reach and he whacked it," Francona said. "I don't care who hits them right now. It was nice seeing that ball leave the ballpark."

With a one-run lead, Beckett held his endurance well and reached 109 pitches before handing the ball off to his bullpen. Relievers Alfredo Aceves, Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon held the Rays scoreless en route to a crucial victory.

"I only pitched six innings. There are a lot of people who did more for this game than I did," Beckett said. "I made a few pitches when I needed to from the second through the sixth. Things worked out, but our offense and defense really picked me up."

The bullpen picked him up, too, especially Bard.

The hard-throwing right-hander had registered a loss in each of his three previous outings, which is totally out of character for Bard. He admitted he was having some mechanical issues. He also said he would figure it out and wanted the ball the next time the club needed him in the eighth inning.

"I told him this the other day, 'There's not anybody I would rather have in my foxhole than him.' He's Daniel Bard," Beckett said. "I don't know what anyone else is saying, but I want him pitching the eighth every game I start for the rest of my career. That would be pretty good, and I like my chances."

It was only two days ago that Francona spoke with Bard about the reliever's recent struggles. Francona told him he still has total confidence in his ability to do his job when called.

"I told him I wanted to be in the game when it's on the line," Bard said. "That was kind of the first time we sat down and he expressed that he still has confidence in me and I said, 'Good. Because I have confidence in myself.'"

It was obvious after Boston's victory Friday that Francona was pumped with the way Bard responded.

"The biggest thing is he flat-out competed," Francona said. "You could see the emotion in the dugout, not just for us but for him."

When Bard is pitching with conviction and confidence, the opposition is in trouble. When he's showing emotion on the mound, the opposition is in trouble. He accomplished all of the above Friday night.

While Bard seemed to regain his form, Papelbon continued his dominance.

The Sox closer registered his 30th save of the season to become the first pitcher ever to reach that total in each of his first six full seasons in the majors. He's converted each of his past 25 chances since May 13 and extended his scoreless-innings streak to 22 straight.

His save Friday was his first chance since Aug. 19, and he took total advantage of the situation. Even though he allowed a single to the Rays' B.J. Upton, Papelbon struck out the side to end the game.

It was an all-around solid pitching performance for the Red Sox. Now it's up to lefty ace Jon Lester to continue it when he takes the mound against Tampa on Saturday, because Boston can't afford any more skids.

"They're all big wins," Beckett said. "We kind of put ourselves in a position where all the wins are going to be big from here on out."

And it will all depend on the club's pitching to get the Sox to where they want to go.

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.