BOSTON – Before the season began, this space proclaimed:

If Boston is again going to be playing baseball in late October, it must get past its division foes (well, at least one of them)

The Rays don’t appear to match up on paper but have been underestimated before and won.

We went on to compare the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays.

Here’s what we said about Boston and what’s happened. All statistics are through Thursday’s games.

STARTING PITCHING: This is one area where the Red Sox did not try to improve, yet they believe they’re in fine shape. If Beckett returns to form, the Red Sox should make the playoffs.

Except for a few health hiccups, Josh Beckett has returned to form and is essential to Boston’s success. Jon Lester is the only other starter who can really be counted on, and he has had his low points this month.

The rest: John Lackey (6.49 ERA), Clay Buchholz (disabled list, trying to return this week), Tim Wakefield (5.08 ERA), Daisuke Matsuzaka (Tommy John surgery), Felix Doubront (injured off and on all year).

RELIEF PITCHING: Boston brought in Jenks and Wheeler and is counting on the continued emergence of Bard. But will Papelbon’s downslide continue?

Jonathan Papelbon is having a sensational year. So was Daniel Bard until a few recent blow-ups. Bobby Jenks has been a complete disappointment, and Dan Wheeler appeared to be coming around before experiencing arm trouble.

Beyond Papelbon, Bard and Alfredo Aceves, this bullpen cannot be counted on.

INFIELD: Boston features three All-Stars along with the steady Scutaro. If Youkilis and Pedroia remain healthy and Gonzalez performs as advertised, it will be, in Pedroia’s words, “a laser show.”

Dustin Pedroia has remained healthy. Kevin Youkilis has broken down. Adrian Gonzalez has fulfilled expectations, although he appears to be hurting this month. Marco Scutaro is steady.

OUTFIELD: The Red Sox get a slight edge here only if Ellsbury can return to his 2009 form, and if Mike Cameron can sub often for Drew against left-handed pitching.

Jacoby Ellsbury is having a breakout year. Free agent left fielder Carl Crawford underperformed, apologizing to Boston fans for his lackluster year in a blog last week. Cameron was a bust and was released. J.D. Drew struggled and finally landed on the disabled list.

Ryan Kalish was supposed to be ready for prime time, but shoulder and neck injuries shelved him. Josh Reddick has filled in well, but his fielding can still be raw.

CATCHING: There is no greater question mark for the Red Sox and Yankees than catcher. In Boston’s ideal situation, Saltalamacchia will emerge to fulfill his promise, under the guidance of Varitek. That, obviously, is no guarantee.

Offensively, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek have been productive. From the catching position, Boston leads in home runs (27) and is fourth in OPS (.741).

Defense has been a challenge. Combined, they have thrown out 24 percent of base-stealers, below the league average of 28 percent.

DESIGNATED HITTER: Even with a slow start, Ortiz, now 35, batted .270 with an .899 OPS, hitting 32 home runs (in 2010).

More good news from a question-mark position. David Ortiz is batting .312 with 29 home runs and a .969 OPS. Against left-handers, he is hitting .321.

As for those Yankees, we stated that starting pitching was an area of concern, and that the bullpens may decide the outcome between Boston and New York.

Well, the Yankees pieced together a decent starting rotation (4.02 ERA, behind Tampa Bay’s 3.52 but ahead of Boston’s 4.38). New York’s bullpen leads the league in ERA (2.91), well ahead of Boston (3.73) and Tampa Bay (3.81).

Of course, the fact that Tampa Bay is even in this discussion is a testament to its savvy. New York began the year with a $207 million payroll. Boston’s was $164 million. Tampa Bay’s was $42 million.

You can argue that the Red Sox wasted more than the Rays spent this year.

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at:

kthomas@pressherald.com

Twitter: ClearTheBases