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Beckett or Wakefield?

Judging from all the cocky, self-serving — and in one particular case, abusive — e-mails I’ve received from members of Red Sox Nation over the past couple of weeks, my guess is that nobody who bleeds Boston ever expected to be in this position: Down 2-1 to the Cleveland Indians in the American League Championship Series.

So here’s my question then: How secure do you feel knowing your season may well be riding on the coin-flip reliability of Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball?

If I were Terry Francona, I’d be awfully tempted to use Josh Beckett on three days rest tonight. Beckett’s postseason resume is pretty much impeccable, and the last time he threw on three days rest in the playoffs, he shut down the New York Yankees in the 2003 World Series-clinching Game 6 for the Florida Marlins.

By using Beckett tonight, you also leave open the possibility that he could pitch Game 7 with a full complement of rest. And while I wouldn’t expect Beckett to be the lights-out guy he was in Game 7 of the 2003 World Series if he did get the ball with short rest, neither would I expect anything less than a grind-it-out, keep-my-team-in-it kind of performance. Too, he’s been so dominant in the playoffs, that he probably would take a mental edge to the hill with him.

The risk, of course, is if Beckett pitched Game 4 and, against all odds, served up a clunker. Then, the Red Sox would be down 3-1 without a great chance to get to Game 7. Still, if I’m Francona, that’s a risk I’m willing to take at this time of year, because if I’m going to lose, I’m going down with my best guy.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Wakefield, even though the back of his own postseason baseball card is not nearly that impressive. But Wakefield has pitched only once in the past 23 days because of back issues. That’s concern enough. Add to it that his bread-and-butter pitch is the most unpredictable one in the game in terms of what it’s going to produce, and I would imagine that he’ll have an awfully short leash.

If the Red Sox lose tonight with Wakefield, they do have Beckett on regular rest in Game 5 and then Curt Schilling possible for Game 6. But a 3-1 hole in a playoff series is awfully difficult to erase, especially against a team that’s been almost as hot — 36-14 over their past 50 — as Colorado has been. The Red Sox did make history by wiping out a three-games-to-zip deficit against the Yankees in the ALCS in 2004, but you can only walk that high wire so many times before you tumble off, and my guess is that an Indians win tonight will, for practical purposes, serve as a series-clincher.

Which is why if it were my call, the ball would go to Beckett.

rhurd