ST. PETERSBURG -- A 95-mph heater effortlessly purred out of Josh Beckett's right hand, and all Jonny Gomes could do was stand there and watch it for strike three. At 113 pitches through six innings, it was obvious that was all there would be on this Friday night for Beckett.

There was no fist-pump or other outward display of emotion. Instead, there was just a purposeful and prideful walk back to the dugout. It was symbolic of how matter of fact Beckett's dominance has been this season.

The ace right-hander did his job once again on a night the Red Sox needed him badly. And the reward was a slump-busting 8-1 victory over the Rays that allowed the Red Sox to breathe again in the American League East. With the Yankees losing a 14-inning heartbreaker to the Blue Jays, Boston's lead in the American League East is back to 2 1/2 games.

For Beckett, it was a milestone win -- No. 20 on the season. With one start left in the regular season, Beckett is arguably the leading candidate in the race for the AL Cy Young Award.

By the time Beckett got to his locker postgame, there were two bottles of Dom Perignon waiting for him. One was from clubhouse attendant Joe Cochran. The other was from right-hander Curt Schilling.

"A lot of hard work from a lot of different people goes into winning that many games in a season," said Beckett. "If I stood here and felt like I could take all the credit for that, I just can't do that. There's a lot of people, I can't even name them. It starts with everyone in this room who dresses in that Boston Red Sox uniform day in and day out. Whether it be a strength coach, a trainer or a player that plays behind me, it takes a lot of hard work from a lot of different people."

But it was Beckett who did most of the heavy lifting to get to the 20 mark before any other pitcher in the Majors this season.

"We rely on him a lot," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "I think he enjoys that. That was a pretty special night for him and not too bad for us."

For the Red Sox, it snapped a four-game losing streak while also reinforcing the notion that they have an ace they can ride in October. Boston's magic number for clinching the division is seven. But it's only two for clinching a postseason berth.

It was fitting that it was Beckett that put the Red Sox on the cusp of clinching a spot in October.

"I think this year, on more than a couple of times, he's been able to bear down and give us quality starts and just be the guy," said third baseman Mike Lowell, who belted home run No. 20 in the ninth inning. "He's been our guy the whole year."

Beckett (six innings, four hits, one run, two walks and eight strikeouts) is now 20-6 with a 3.14 ERA.

In a major oddity, the Red Sox actually struck out 17 times despite posting the eight runs. The last time the Red Sox struck out that many times in a game was Aug. 12, 1974, when a Hall of Famer named Nolan Ryan -- then with the Angels -- struck out 19.

The Red Sox, looking a little refreshed after the off-day, got some momentum in the first inning, when Jacoby Ellsbury led off the game with a double to right field against Rays ace Scott Kazmir. He moved to third on a grounder back to the box by Dustin Pedroia. Ellsbury distracted the Rays with his speed. With David Ortiz at the plate, catcher Dioner Navarro tried to catch Ellsbury leaning off third. Instead, the throw sailed past the base and into foul territory, allowing Ellsbury to score.

Beckett's only tough inning was the first, as he labored with his command. After walking Greg Norton and Carlos Pena, Beckett surrendered an RBI double to right by Delmon Young to tie the game.

"Young is a young, aggressive hitter and he couldn't get the last pitch by him," said Francona. "He fouled off what seemed like 10 pitches. That's just a good hitter."

But after that, Beckett took it up a notch.

"I was just a tick off there in the first inning," said Beckett. "Sometimes that happens. I just needed some quicker innings. I had to give the bullpen the ball with nine outs left and you hate to do that."

Kamzir, as he always is against the Red Sox, was tough. But Boston did get something going in the third. Eric Hinske started the rally in painful fashion, getting hit by a pitch. With one out, Pedroia walked and Ortiz raked an RBI single to right to give the Red Sox the lead.

Originally, Francona contemplated giving Ortiz the night off. But with Manny Ramirez and Kevin Youkilis still out with injuries, Ortiz requested the chance to play, even though he came in 5-for-34 against Kazmir.

"Tell him to send me the baseball," quipped Ortiz. "This guy is pretty good, man. He's got good stuff."

With Bobby Kielty at the plate, Kazmir unleashed a wild pitch which scored Pedroia to extend Boston's edge to 3-1.

Beckett got some help defensively in the fifth, when Ellsbury raced down the left-field line and literally sprawled into the Boston bullpen to catch a foul ball off Norton's bat. For good measure, Ellsbury kicked a chair on the way to his mound landing.

"I just kicked a chair," shrugged Ellsbury. "I was happy I made the catch. At the same time, I didn't want to get hurt on it."

Jason Varitek boosted the lead to three runs by bashing a solo homer to right against reliever Gary Glover in the eighth. Ortiz added even more insurance in the ninth by launching a three-run opposite-field homer. Lowell followed Ortiz with a back-to-back shot.

"David knows how to play the game," said Francona. "It's time to be a leader. Jason is a leader. I think we have some guys like that. Mikey Lowell. We have some guys who can get us in the right direction when things don't seem like they're perfect. That makes my life easier -- even on the tough nights."

But thanks to Beckett, this was not one of those tougher nights, of which the Red Sox have had their share of lately.

"It's a great number for other people to look at," said Beckett. "I'm out there just trying to execute pitches. I'm not worried about whether we lost the day before or won the day before. I'm just trying to execute pitches."

You can make the case that nobody has executed more of them than Beckett in 2007.