It’s just another in a series of challenges

Sox deny Phillies set is a bigger deal

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By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / June 28, 2011

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PHILADELPHIA — The Red Sox open a three-game series against the Phillies tonight at sold-out Citizens Bank Park. Josh Beckett will take the mound against Cliff Lee.

It doesn’t take a great leap of faith to imagine that also being the case in Game 5 of the World Series in four months.

At 49-30, the Phillies have the best record in baseball. Until their four-game losing streak last week, the 45-32 Red Sox were on roughly the same pace. That makes this series one of the more intriguing of the season.

The Red Sox have a deeper lineup and lead the majors with 409 runs and a .277 batting average. The Phillies have a better rotation and have the lowest earned run average in the game at 3.05.

Both teams have recent postseason experience, passionate fan bases, and great expectations. The Phillies are a 3-1 choice in Las Vegas to win the National League; the Sox are the American League favorites at 7-2.

“In the back of your mind, you kind of wonder if we’ll play them again,’’ Boston slugger David Ortiz said.

But there’s a better chance you can get a baseball player to discuss the intricacies of French cinema in the 1930s than to concede that one series is more significant than another, especially in June.

“I don’t lose any sleep thinking about the Phillies,’’ Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis said. “I haven’t really thought about it. I didn’t even know who we’re facing or anything like that. When we go out on the field and we take batting practice and prep for the game, then we’ll be ready.

“I’m not really interested in this series other than going out there and just playing baseball. I don’t look at it as foreshadowing. Both teams still have to play a lot more baseball to even get in the playoffs, let alone the World Series. If it’s October and we’re both in the playoffs and we’re both playing well, then we can talk about it. But until then it’s just a series where we have to go out and play some good baseball and hopefully take two out of three.’’

Playing the Yankees six series a season has taught Red Sox manager Terry Francona not to value one series more than another.

“We don’t need to build it up,’’ Francona said. “They’re all important. We love them all; that’s why we play. I think it’s a little dangerous pointing to series, because then you’ve got a chance to stumble somewhere else.’’

But Philadelphia first baseman Ryan Howard did acknowledge he was eager to see what transpires.

“It’s going to be a great series, fun to watch, fun for everybody,’’ he told reporters over the weekend. “It should be a good, exciting series. We want to win every game. We know we’re going to have to step it up for these guys.’’

The pitching matchup makes tonight’s game especially appealing.

Lee (8-5, 2.87 ERA) is 4-0 in four starts this month, giving up one run over 33 innings. That’s right, one. Lee is coming off back-to-back shutouts of the Marlins and Cardinals.

The Red Sox saw their World Series hopes bolstered when Lee elected to return to Philadelphia instead of staying with the Rangers or, worse, signing with the Yankees.

“When he signed there, I was happy,’’ Francona said. “He’s on a roll right now. Those are fun games to play. You kind of go in knowing you’re not going to knock it around the ballpark, but those sure are fun games to be a part of.’’

But for all his accomplishments, Lee is 2-4 with a 4.06 ERA in 10 career appearances against the Red Sox. He has not beaten the Sox since April 26, 2006 when he pitched for the Indians.

Adrian Gonzalez, who leads the majors with a .361 batting average and 71 RBIs, is 7 for 10 with a home run against Lee in his career.

Beckett (6-2) has the lowest ERA in baseball at 1.86, but has not pitched since June 15 because of a severe case of the flu.

Francona does not expect Beckett to be limited because his absence was due to illness and not injury.

“If he’s running out of gas a little bit, we’ll keep an eye on him. But it’s not like he’s hurt,’’ Francona said.

The righthander feels the same way.

“I should be fine,’’ Beckett said. “My arm is good. I just needed to build myself up physically a little bit and I’ve had the time to do that.’’

Beckett is 8-4 with a 3.98 ERA in 19 career appearances against the Phillies. He’s 2-1 with a 4.71 ERA in three games since he joined the Red Sox. Beckett has not faced the Phillies since June 14, 2009, at Citizens Bank Park. He allowed seven runs over six innings in an 11-6 loss.

One advantage the Red Sox could have is in the bullpen. Philadelphia closer Ryan Madson was struck in the hand by a ball in May and has had lingering pain since. He had a cortisone injection Friday and is questionable for tonight.

Without Madson, who has 15 saves, the Phillies could use Antonio Bastardo or rookie Michael Stutes in the ninth inning. The Phillies also could go to Kyle Kendrick, whose turn in the rotation is being skipped.

Peter Abraham can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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