Red Sox can't get ahead of themselves

PHILADELPHIA -- After they lost back-to-back series to the San Diego Padres and Pittsburgh Pirates and went just 1-for-26 with runners in scoring position this weekend in Pittsburgh, it becomes a challenge to argue that the Red Sox are better than the Worcester Tornadoes, never mind the Philadelphia Phillies.

World Series preview? The Sox at the moment resemble a team that, if faced with the same rules of survival as John W. Henry's Liverpool soccer team, would be more concerned with avoiding relegation than advancing in the postseason.

But Terry Francona, who this week returns to the city where he cut his big league managerial teeth, long ago learned the difference between permanent suffering and temporary misery, and the current condition of the Sox falls in the latter category.

The Sox are out of sorts because they are out of their league, literally, their usual waltz through interleague play sabotaged by a confluence of the following circumstances:

• Trips to the disabled list by Carl Crawford, Clay Buchholz and Jed Lowrie.

David Ortiz's forced benching because he is a DH in a DH-less world for an interminable nine games.

• Right field becoming a black hole in which J.D. Drew, Mike Cameron and Darnell McDonald have simultaneously disappeared.

Josh Beckett's monumental bellyache, which has kept him off the mound for nearly two weeks.

The good news for the Red Sox is that Beckett, who hasn't pitched since June 15 because of a particularly nasty strain of stomach flu, returns Tuesday to face the Phillies, his first start since he threw a one-hit, complete-game shutout against the Tampa Bay Rays.

The bad news is that he is due to face Cliff Lee, who has thrown back-to-back shutouts and, because he is left-handed, is likely to face a Sox lineup employing Cameron (3-for-36 with 11 K's since May 30) and McDonald (2-for-25 over that same stretch). Francona's right-handed-hitting platoon leaves him competing with one hand tied behind his back, which the Sox can do when Crawford is healthy and Ortiz's name is on the lineup card but is painful to watch when they're not.

Francona likes to talk about how the Sox keep the line moving during their at-bats, but these days, the line grinds to a halt four spots in. On Friday night in Pittsburgh, McDonald batted fifth and left six men on base. It got worse. On Sunday, Drew hit fifth and struck out to end the first inning, stranding two runners, then left the game with a bruise near his eye. McDonald replaced him, and left two men on base twice and the bases loaded once. That's 13 runners stranded by McDonald in two games, at a spot in the order usually occupied by Ortiz.

The noncontributions of Drew (13-for-61 since May 30, one home run since May 19, listless at-bats all season) become more pronounced when Crawford and Ortiz, and to a lesser extent Lowrie, are absent.

Francona has thus far resisted the temptation of moving Adrian Gonzalez to right field and playing Ortiz at first base, and wouldn't seem inclined to do so against lefty Lee on Tuesday night. Another loss Tuesday, though, and there might be a conga line of Sox players outside the manager's office, led by Gonzalez, urging the manager to do so.

Francona's reasons for resisting are sound ones. He's taking the long view, recognizing that Gonzalez's importance to this team transcends one difficult week and that the team he has been sending out on a nightly basis for the better part of two months has played a great brand of baseball. Despite their recent dip, the Sox are still averaging 6.6 runs a game -- and batting more than .300 -- in June.

Gonzalez has had a month for the ages. With three games left, the Sox first baseman is batting .443 (39-for-88) in June, the highest average in the majors in that span. Only three Sox players have hit for a higher average in June: Wade Boggs, .485 in 1987; Ted Williams, .460 in 1948; and Nomar Garciaparra, .452 in 2000. Gonzalez also has six home runs and 25 RBIs this month, which is down from his May (nine HRs and 31 RBIs) but in 35 fewer at-bats.

Gonzalez has three games in Philadelphia to do more damage. After Lee, a rookie, Vance Worley, who has stepped in for a sore-backed Roy Oswalt, is scheduled to pitch Wednesday, while Cole Hamels goes Thursday.

And Gonzalez has historically found Citizens Bank Park to his liking. In 17 games there, he is hitting .338 (22-for-65) with nine home runs and 18 RBIs. Given that track record, the last thing you want Gonzalez worrying about is chasing fly balls.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.