BALTIMORE -- Entering Monday's game, it was looking less likely that Kevin Youkilis would be able to play for the Red Sox again in 2011.

With three games left in the regular season, Youkilis doesn't appear any closer to being able to return to action than he was a week ago. One thing is clear: It isn't for a lack of effort.

The All-Star third baseman has a painful sports hernia injury that will require surgery once the season is over.

Red Sox manager Terry Francona was asked if there was a chance Youkilis would play in the final three games of the regular season.

"I don't think so," Francona said. "I think Youk, he's trying so hard. He's pretty sore. He did a little light running yesterday. He's pretty sore. I don't think we've pulled the plug. I think being realistic though, we're probably fighting an uphill battle."

Jed Lowrie and Mike Aviles have been splitting the playing time at third base with Youkilis out of the mix. Lowrie started Monday night against the Orioles at Camden Yards.

Tek, Salty both questionable for Tuesday

BALTIMORE -- When the Red Sox announced they had added catcher Luis Exposito to the active roster before a 6-3 loss to the Orioles on Monday night, the belief was Exposito would be the fourth-string backstop.

Jason Varitek was bothered by a sore right knee after he was hit by a pitch from the Yankees Ivan Nova on Sunday, but he was in the posted starting lineup. Jarrod Saltalamacchia was good to go, and so was Ryan Lavarnway.

Fast-forward to the scene postgame Monday, and the Red Sox were left to sort more carnage than just their season. Both Varitek and Saltalamacchia, a catching tandem who have been steady and healthy all season, are unknowns heading into play Tuesday, with the Sox's regular season reduced to two games by virtue of an American League Wild Card tie with the Rays.

For Game No. 161, it's possible that only Lavarnway and Exposito will be available to handle a struggling pitching staff.

"Getting hit or the loss?" said Saltalamacchia when asked how the sting was.

Saltalamacchia took a foul tip off his collarbone, closer to his non-throwing (left) side, in the eighth inning and had to be removed for Lavarnway. X-rays were negative, but the ball managed to find its way into a spot were protective equipment couldn't fully do its job.

"Yeah, he got whacked pretty good," Varitek said. "Foul tips hit you, there's been times that it hits you in weirder spots, you just can't do anything about it.

"I think it went through part of the chest protector ... it's just kind of angle the way it comes off, he was, turning, he was reaching for the ball."

While both players were hopeful they'd be available Tuesday, neither was sure.

"Yeah. I mean, I want to [play]," Saltalamacchia said. "I've just got to come to the field, get treatment and throw and see how it feels. Pretty sore right now. Hopefully it gets better overnight and come back tomorrow."

"Right now, I'm not going to tell you," Varitek said. "We've got two games, I'm not going to really give into what, just going to try to get ready to play."

Varitek was in the lineup Monday because he and the Sox were hopeful that he could catch Josh Beckett -- who had pitched to Saltalamacchia in-game just once before this season -- but Saltalamacchia and Beckett were both aware it was possible Varitek wouldn't be able to play. Beckett allowed six runs in as many innings.

"We were going to try and see, get treatment all day and just see what we could do," Varitek said. "So we both kind of warmed up. So Salty wasn't caught off-guard, we did it early enough to where that they could have time to settle in."

Drew back with Red Sox for crucial stretch

BALTIMORE -- Two months of his season gone, JD Drew's taking the better-late-than-never approach.

After a rather triumphant return to the Red Sox on Sunday -- he went 1-for-5 with an RBI single and played 13 innings in a crucial 7-4 win over the Yankees -- the right fielder was again in Boston's lineup on Monday. Before Sunday, he hadn't played in the bigs since July 19.

"This is just a fun time of year. This is what you play for," Drew said Monday before the Red Sox took on the Orioles to kick off their final series of the regular season. "We don't want to find ourselves in the situation that we're in, but there's something to be said about playing to the end. We'll do that, see what the future holds for the postseason, and then continue on there."

Drew went on the disabled list in late July with a left shoulder impingement, then fractured his right middle finger in a Triple-A rehab game at the end of August.

"It's a tough situation, with my finger still being a little sore and not having had a lot of batting practice, to go out there and play for five hours is not your typical first day back in a couple of months," Drew said. "But I feel good. I've kept myself in good shape. My shoulder feels pretty good. My strength is there. Now it's just a matter of grinding out at-bats and see what happens."

Manager Terry Francona said it was "kind of a lot to ask" for Drew to come right back on Monday, but as a left-handed hitter, he isn't likely to start on Tuesday when southpaw Zach Britton goes for Baltimore.

Drew said he told Francona that he was available to play before the first game of a doubleheader in New York on Sunday, and he was activated before the second. In his walk year, the 35-year-old Drew thought he'd be able to come back sooner, but the finger made it impossible to swing.

Though this year could well be his last with the Red Sox -- and perhaps his last before retirement - Drew said his focus is fully with the task at hand, the American League Wild Card. Boston is up one game on the Rays with three to play.

"Next year's not even a concern at this point. This year is the ultimate thing," Drew said. "From where we stood a few months ago or even a month ago I wouldn't have thought it would come down to the way we're playing right now and having to battle it out. But I think the attitude's good. We'll see how it works out."

Red Sox keeping close tabs on Buchholz

BALTIMORE -- Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz pitched his first competitive inning in over three months, working an 18-pitch session in an instructional league game in Fort Myers, Fla.

If Boston can clinch a postseason berth by Tuesday, there's a likelihood that Buchholz will pitch for the Sox in Wednesday's regular-season finale against the Orioles.

However, if Boston's season is riding on Wednesday's game, Buchholz will instead go back to Florida and get another tuneup there.

"It would be kind of hard to treat [a crucial game No. 162] as instructional league," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said.

The last time Buchholz pitched for Boston was June 16. He has been recovering from a stress fracture in his back.

The Red Sox have never come out and said Buchholz will pitch for them in the postseason, particularly in the American League Division Series. If he does return, it will be as a reliever, because there is no time to get him stretched out as a starter.

The Red Sox have better chance of knowing how viable that possibility is if he could pitch in front of them before the regular season ends.

In the meantime, the club will monitor his systems and their own postseason positioning, and try to make the best decision.

"Health-wise, [he did] really good," said Francona. "[He's] a little bit rusty facing hitters. Clay will come back here, get evaluated. We'll see where we are; then he'll either pitch for us Wednesday or go back to instructional league."

Lester poised to start Wednesday if needed

BALTIMORE -- If Boston's postseason fate is hanging in the balance for Wednesday night's Game No. 162, expecte ace left-hander Jon Lester to take the ball on three days' rest.

Lester has been in a funk his last three starts, going 0-3 with a 10.54 ERA.

In one sense, the lefty's latest rough outing could work to his advantage. Lester threw just 55 pitches on Saturday against the Yankees, which would lessen the burden of going on three days' rest for the second time in his career.

One interesting scenario: If the Red Sox lead by one game going into Wednesday, does Francona roll the dice that he can win with somebody else and save Lester for a potential Game 1 of the American League Division Series, or even a winner-take-all Game No. 163 against the Rays?

"There's not a lot of scenarios where Lester doesn't pitch [Wednesday]," Francona said. "I take that back. There's not a whole lot of reason to think it through too much [right now]. We just need to win. It will figure itself out."

Entering Monday's game against the Orioles, the Red Sox led the Rays by one game in the AL Wild Card standings.