Josh Beckett, Jon Lester Still Hold the Keys to Unlock Red Sox’ Playoff Potential

Josh Beckett, Jon Lester Still Hold the Keys to Unlock Red Sox' Playoff PotentialBOSTON — We'll go as far as (fill in the blank) can take us.

That's a phrase sports fans everywhere have become accustomed to hearing, and in Boston it's no different. The Celtics could go as far as Rajon Rondo could take them. The Bruins' Stanley Cup hopes relied heavily on Tim Thomas. The Patriots put their Super Bowl aspirations on the shoulders of Tom Brady and the offense.

If we're going to turn this into a game of Mad Libs, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester are really the only acceptable fill-ins for the Red Sox version of the game.

The Sox feature one of the American League's most potent lineups, and it's in line to only get stronger now that Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford are back in the mix. Once David Ortiz eventually gets back, and as long as everyone can stay healthy, there's no reason why the Boston offense shouldn't be good enough to keep the Sox in contention throughout the rest of the year.

But there's a huge difference between staying in contention and taking things to the next level, which is exactly where the Red Sox are trying to go after being stuck in an in-between area for much of the season. As much as the solid lineup — even if it didn't look that way on Friday — can be an asset and an important factor in grabbing one of the two wild card spots, it's the starting pitching that needs to be there. And it won't be there without Beckett and Lester pitching up to their potential.

None of this is anything groundbreaking, but we're still left wondering what exactly the Red Sox have in the way of pitching. There's been a lot of moving parts this season, but Beckett and Lester have been and are expected to be the constants. The problem, however, is that they've been constantly inconsistent.

Beckett once again experienced first-inning struggles on Friday night against Toronto, and it's becoming an increasingly concerning trend in what's already been a disappointing season for the right-hander. His 10.69 ERA in the first frame is the main reason his ERA sits in the mid 4's, as he's actually compiled a 3.38 mark in subsequent innings this season. But a rough start generally leads to poor overall results, and that's exactly what we've seen out of the Red Sox in games he pitches.

Lester has experienced his share of let-downs this season as well — the most recent coming on Tuesday against Chicago. His ERA stands at 4.80, and the Red Sox have struggled to string together wins with the previously reliable lefty on the mound.

Both Beckett and Lester have proven track records, but when the struggles linger into late July, it's reasonable to wonder, "what gives?" At some point, things are going to have to get better for what should be Boston's two-headed monster at the top of the rotation. Friday seemed like a perfect time to start that new, favorable trend, considering the exciting finish to Thursday's game, but it wasn't the case. Instead, we're left once again looking toward "the next start."

That's an unfortunate situation to be in, especially when it could create an even more unfortunate situation come October.

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