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Time for John Farrell to earn his money

While John Farrell is trying to win, he’s also trying to find out which of the relievers can help his team in the playoffs.

EPA

While John Farrell is trying to win, he’s also trying to find out which of the relievers can help his team in the playoffs.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Don’t take the insertion of two rookie relievers in a 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday night to mean the Red Sox are not trying to whittle down the Magic Number until it is gone.

They would love to sweep and destroy every team. The fact they’ve won seven straight series shows you how dominant they’ve been.

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“We’re trying to win every series,” said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “That’s our No. 1 goal from here on out. Tomorrow it’s all about Game 1 against the Yankees and we’ll go series by series. It would be nice to win [the AL East] as soon as possible, and we’d rather win it sooner than later, but we played a good game tonight and we just came up short.”

This is where John Farrell will earn his money.

Thursday night, when it came time to replace starter Jake Peavy, the Sox manager decided he needed to rest his usual corps of relievers — Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, and Brandon Workman. Farrell decided Franklin Morales was going to be the closer, so he stayed away from him. He brought on Drake Britton, Rubby De La Rosa, and Matt Thornton. Farrell basically emptied his bullpen of excess relievers in one game.

With Jacoby Ellsbury already out with a foot fracture, he also sat Shane Victorino to give his assorted back and hamstring injuries time to respond to treatment.

While Farrell’s trying to win, he’s also trying to find out which of the relievers can help his team in the playoffs. If you can’t find out now, when can you find out?

The Morales/Thornton debate comes into play when discussing the bullpen options. The fact that Morales was designated the closer Thursday says a lot. It says he’s ahead of Thornton on the depth chart. Both are veteran lefthanders. But it seems as if Farrell has more faith in not only Breslow at this point, but even Britton.

A manager wants to win, rest his regulars, give players a chance to heal nagging injuries, and set up the bullpen and rotation all before the end of the season.

Even the most skeptical would agree that the Red Sox are not going to squander this 8½-game lead. What happened in September 2011 is not likely to happen this time around with 14 games to go.

At some point, Farrell has to rest Dustin Pedroia for a day or two. He’s played in 147 games, the most of any player in the American League. Pedroia probably doesn’t want to hear it and probably fights Farrell tooth and nail at the thought of it. But as a max-effort player, there has to be some downtime between now and the end of the regular season.

David Ortiz may be a DH, but he’s been playing a lot lately as well. His heel issues are a thing of the past, but Ortiz could stand to have some downtime over the next couple of weeks.

Saltalamacchia has had some inflammation in his lower back recently. Farrell now plans to play him a good amount, but not in many back-to-back games so that his back won’t flare up. The Red Sox have come to depend on Saltalamacchia’s power. He homered Thursday, and also threw out a Rays runner attempting to steal and stole a base himself. He’s also become a catcher that the pitchers feel comfortable with.

Farrell has already taken to resting Mike Napoli occasionally and has found that Napoli has responded to the rest.

Farrell will also have the luxury of pushing some starters back, giving them more rest or even skipping a turn. Felix Doubront was taken out of the rotation, but Farrell said Doubront will start a game or two before the season’s over. It could mean Peavy, who has a sore wrist after being struck by a batted ball Thursday, could get a couple more days between starts. Ditto John Lackey and Ryan Dempster.

The Red Sox would love to just give Uehara a few days off to refresh, while not losing the tremendous mojo he has going.

The Red Sox don’t want to lose momentum for sure, and they’ll likely have a big problem with that after the final game of the season Sept. 29 in Baltimore because the Division Series won’t start until Oct. 4. The team is trying to formulate a plan to best use that downtime, a dilemma teams such as the Tigers have had in the past.

By the end of Thursday’s game, Red Sox fans were already lamenting the loss and why two rookies were pitching in relief. Tazawa and Uehara can’t pitch every day. They will burn out and then won’t be good for the playoffs. These are the late stages of the season. There’s a lot of wear and tear on these guys.

Sure a fan wants the Red Sox to go for the jugular and then relax for a while, but sometimes a team has to slow down when it feels the time is appropriate. Last night, the mainstream bullpen (and Victorino) got the night off.

Britton (1 innings, 1 walk) did well, De La Rosa did not. In the eighth, he allowed a ground-rule double by Evan Longoria and Wil Myers’s double to right. The previous night, Workman allowed runs in the seventh and eighth, allowing the Rays to tie it before Mike Carp’s winning grand slam in the 10th.

To this point, the Red Sox have been able to win while working in their young players. That’s not easy to do. The youngsters now have a taste of a pennant race that they can feel they’re a part of. It’s all good for now and down the road.

If you think the Sox gave a game away Thursday night, you’re wrong. Farrell simply managed his personnel to set them up for the fortunes that lie ahead.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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