Playoffs?! You kidding me?

BOSTON -- It will be 12 days before the Red Sox return home to play again.

By then, will anyone care?

Bobby Valentine is living in a parallel universe where he still declares with regularity, as he did on a radio appearance Wednesday, that this is a playoff team.

There are moments -- when Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford are flying around the bases, and Adrian Gonzalez is stroking run-scoring doubles, and the rookie third baseman, Will Middlebrooks, keeps delivering big home runs -- when you succumb to that illusion and imagine how much better it will be when David Ortiz joins them, which could be as soon as Sunday in Cleveland.

But then reality sets in -- Jon Lester pitching well enough to lose, Josh Beckett pitching like a man who should be headed to the disabled list, the bullpen suddenly springing multiple leaks, the manager making puzzling decisions, the Sox unable to sustain the semblance of a winning streak -- and you're left thinking that this season would be best put out of its misery.

That's such a negative spin for a team that is one hot streak away from hoisting itself back into this race, an attainable goal if the Sox catch fire on this 10-game swing through Cleveland (four games), Baltimore (three) and New York (three), the head-to-head meetings with the Orioles and Yankees especially holding significance for the standings.

The Sox made a hash out of the playoff probability tables with their collapse last season; why not do the same in reverse in 2012?

But that seems such a ludicrous proposition for a team that this season has defined catching fire as self-immolation, that makes a big production of casting a vote of confidence for Valentine, then proceeds to lose two out of three to the Rangers, which followed losses in three out of four to the Twins, which continues a pattern of sub-.500 baseball (12-14) since the All-Star break. They are 13-20 since July 1, when they were five games over .500 and all seemed -- if not right in the world -- certainly looking up. Then they lost three straight to the Athletics in Oakland and three of four to the Yankees going into the break, and it's been a steady diet of mediocrity ever since, no matter how many times Valentine proclaims what a good brand of baseball this team is playing.

Gonzalez, after two stirring last-at-bat wins in New York, said the team had to approach the last two months of the season as if every night were a playoff game.

But what sense of urgency do you detect in a team that sends out Beckett to start the sixth inning of a game in which he already has given up six runs and was taken deep twice in the fifth, the first time he has given up multiple home runs in an inning since the Tigers battered him for five home runs on the second day of the season? It wasn't until Beckett had been rocked for another home run, this one by Geovany Soto, his first as a Ranger, that Valentine went to the bullpen.

Then, after the Sox staged a stirring comeback -- Middlebrooks hitting a game-tying, three-run home run in the seventh, when the Sox scored four times -- Valentine left in Clayton Mortensen to start the ninth. Mortensen, who had just been called up from Pawtucket, already had given the Sox three innings.

Mortensen walked Elvis Andrus, then gave up a single to Josh Hamilton, Andrus taking third. Only then did Valentine signal for his closer, Alfredo Aceves, who gave up a sacrifice fly to Adrian Beltre that accounted for the deciding run.

"I tried to squeeze to see if Clay could get Hamilton to swing at something out of the zone, which he has those pitches, and he's an aggressive hitter; it didn't work. Very short bullpen today."

That was the same reason, Valentine said, that he sent out Beckett to start the sixth.

Until the ninth, Mortensen made a good account of himself, allowing just Nelson Cruz's bases-empty home run in the seventh. But the Sox entrusted him with the ninth inning of a tie game against the two-time defending American League champions. Mortensen, who had just arrived Wednesday morning after Vicente Padilla was placed on the disabled list, has been shuttled up and down five times. Before Wednesday, he had pitched four times in the ninth inning of a game. The Sox were behind by three or more runs in all of them.

It's standard practice to have your closer start the ninth inning of a tie game at home. Valentine said he didn't do so because he had only Andrew Miller behind him if the game went into extra innings. That was the same reason he gave for not bringing in Miller to face the left-handed Hamilton.

But if the Sox bullpen was as short as Valentine claimed, then the front office shares the blame for this loss. They should have brought up another reliever in addition to Mortensen. According to a team source, that was discussed and the Sox elected not to do so because they felt Junichi Tazawa, Mortensen, Miller and Aceves gave Valentine four options, with Craig Breslow and Mark Melancon available in an emergency if the game went into extra innings.

"Everybody else was basically shut down today," Valentine said. Which doesn't explain why both Tazawa and Miller warmed up, if they were shut down.

As for Beckett? He has now won just once in 11 starts dating back to May 20. He didn't use his back as an excuse for his outing, but a yield of three home runs and a two-run triple inspires no confidence that he can make a meaningful contribution at this stage. For his sake and the team's, it might be best to shut him down for a while.

The Sox return home to play the Angels on Aug. 21. Ordinarily, we would suggest marking that date on your calendar. This go-round? Check back in a week; you should know if it's worth it by then.