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2011 ASG: Beckett unable to pitch after warming up

Under the Sunday night spotlight, Red Sox ace Josh Beckett will begin the second half of a resurgent season by taking on a Rays club that isn't going away in the tough American League East.

It'll be only the third visit to Tropicana Field for Sunday Night Baseball, as 6-foot-9 right-hander Jeff Neimann takes the mound against Beckett in the finale of a three-game weekend set with the series hanging in the balance.

For Beckett, the outing serves as the first opportunity not only to show that he can continue to carry a strong first half into the summer, but also that an injury scare was just that -- a scare.

Beckett left his start on July 8 against the Orioles after five innings because of a hyperextended left knee. He thought he was fine to pitch in the All-Star Game, but then backed out when he couldn't get loose during warmups.

At a time when the Red Sox are without two other aces -- lefty Jon Lester and righty Clay Buchholz -- it is essential that Beckett stays on the mound and continues to dominate.

And Beckett says he's ready to go.

"I played long toss [on] some flat ground," said Beckett on Friday. "Everything is good, just like I said it was. If [the All-Star Game] would have been a regular game, I would have pitched in it. It's just tough. You go out there, there's a lot of things going on before the [All-Star Game], maybe time is not always on your side."

The Rays, meanwhile, look at Sunday's game as another opportunity to tighten the trio at the top of the AL East standings. Tampa Bay meets the Red Sox and Yankees in 16 of its first 37 contests coming out of the All-Star break.

Another rough AL East race, and a national spotlight shining on them? The Rays say, "Bring it on."

"We love it. I know we love it," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Over the last couple of years, we've kind of liked being in that moment and being in that spotlight situation."

Red Sox: Pedroia's roll continues
• Dustin Pedroia continued his red-hot hitting that began before the All-Star break, going 2-for-5 Saturday to extend his hitting streak to 14 games. He's doing it with power, too. Pedroia cracked his seventh homer during the streak and has 12 RBIs while batting .379 (22-for-58).

• Carl Crawford was slated to play the second game of his two-game rehab stint at Pawtucket on Saturday, and is expected to be activated by the Red Sox on Monday in Baltimore. The outfielder signed to a $142 million contract this winter has been on the DL since June 18 with a left hamstring strain.

Rays: Niemann hoping to keep on rolling
• Entering his 11th start of the season having won back-to-back starts for the first time in nearly a year, Niemann is 3-0 with a 3.19 ERA since coming off the disabled list with a strained lower back. While he fixed his problem of getting pitches up in the zone, Niemann says he has really focused on challenging hitters on the inside part of the plate.

"I don't feel like I really changed at all [since the DL stint]," Niemann said. "It's more about execution and getting the ball where we need to get it, and having the breaking stuff there."

Niemann said his last start -- a July 4 outing against the Yankees in which he allowed one run on six hits in 7 1/3 innings for the win -- was the best he has felt in a long time.

"I liked him pitching inside a lot. I just thought he pitched a whole lot better [in his last start]," Maddon said of Niemann, who 2-2 with a 6.62 in four career starts vs. the Red Sox.

Worth noting
• After a travel day Monday, the Red Sox will be in Baltimore on Tuesday to start a three-game set against the Orioles, their first meeting on the heels of their contentious series at Fenway Park before the break.

• The Rays will continue their run against the top teams in their division with a four-game set against the Yankees at Tropicana Field, starting Monday.

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