ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — For too many days this season, Alex Cora has been juggling flaming chainsaws when it comes to using the bullpen.
Monday afternoon’s 4-3 loss against the Tampa Bay Rays was the latest example.
Michael Wacha gave the Sox six strong innings and 96 pitches, allowing two runs on seven hits without a walk. He came out of the game with a one-run lead having done his job.
It took Jeurys Familia 10 pitches to give that lead away. His first two pitches to Vidal Bruján were nowhere near the plate. The third was in the strike zone and hit Bruján.
Bruján stuck his elbow into Kevin Plawecki’s catcher’s mitt, took the hit and went to first base. Umpire Nic Lentz has the option to waive off the hit by pitch — which Plawecki called to his attention. But he elected not to.
A play like that is not reviewable.
“That’s a hard one to take,” Cora said.
Bruján stole second, took third on a groundout and scored when Manuel Margot doubled.
Zack Kelly came in and got the second out but David Peralta doubled just inside the first-base line to give Tampa Bay the lead.
And so it goes. The Red Sox are tied for third in the majors with 25 blown saves and are fifth with 29 losses by relievers. Their bullpen earned run average of 4.56 is higher than every team except the Royals, Reds, Rockies, and Pirates.
There are two forces at work here: talent and structure. The Sox lack both.
Familia was released by the Phillies on Aug. 6, having had the worst season of his 11-year career to that point. The Red Sox signed him three days later and after one inning with Triple A Worcester he was deemed ready to return to the majors.
Familia has since pitched 9 innings and put 14 men on base by hit, walk, or hit by pitch.
Eduard Bazardo, who cleared waivers in April and was outrighted to Triple A, was put back on the 40-man roster last week and is now on the major league roster.
Tyler Danish, who missed 45 games with a forearm strain, had one game at Triple A (when he allowed four runs in one inning) before he was activated off the injured list.
Cora also has to be careful with how often he uses Garrett Whitlock, who has been dealing with hip discomfort for several months.
John Schreiber, the most valuable reliever this season, has pitched 55 innings. That’s 39 more than he had ever pitched in the majors.
Cora was thrilled Kelly had returned from three days of paternity leave because that meant they could lean on him. Never mind that his major league experience consisted of three games.
Every day is a challenge, especially when you’re carrying 10 relievers and Matt Strahm is the only lefthander.
“You map it out,” Cora said. “Kelly was going to be a big part of what we were trying to do today and Familia, too . . . We’re pushing the envelope, right? We’re still competing and trying to win games. There’s going to be days when people are down. We knew [that] coming into the game.”
The Sox have lacked a closer for much of the season, too. It was closer by committee for a few months — remember Hansel Robles? — before Tanner Houck emerged as a trustworthy option.
Houck’s season-ending back injury has given Matt Barnes a chance to reclaim the job.
If the Sox have a ninth-inning lead on Tuesday you could see Schreiber. Or maybe Whitlock. Don’t discount Strahm. Ryan Brasier?
The Red Sox are the land of opportunity for a reliever these days.
It will be another day of hoping for the best and juggling those chainsaws.