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Nick Cafardo | On baseball

Red Sox improving, but there still is a problem area — bullpen

Alexi Ogando left Sunday’s game having pitched longer than usual — and having given up two homers and three runs.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The Red Sox have won their last three series against pretty good teams — the Rays, Jays, and Astros. They can’t do much more than what they’ve done in an effort to dig themselves out of last place and get back to .500.

After Sunday’s 5-4 win over Houston at Fenway Park, the Red Sox are six games under .500, and six games in back of the first-place Yankees. This will be a slow road back, and also a very tough one.

Three things stood out in the series against the Astros.

First was the ability the Red Sox offense had to come back late in games, a trait it did not exhibit for most of this season. Second was the wear and tear on the bullpen, which had to pitch four innings Sunday after Clay Buchholz’s complete game Saturday. Third, the return of Ryan Hanigan is making a difference in consistency at the catcher position.

It’s not that Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez pitched poorly Sunday. In fact the 22-year-old lefty matched his 21-year-old rival, righty Lance McCullers Jr., with a strong five-inning performance.


But Rodriguez’s five-inning stint required the Red Sox to use five relievers. John Farrell has done a good job trying to manage the bullpen, but when he plugs one hole another develops.

When we first started seeing starters not go deep into games, one had the feeling this eventually would catch up to the Red Sox. Notice that setup man Junichi Tazawa didn’t pitch for five days before a very effective one-inning stint Sunday. There was obviously some shoulder fatigue to deal with. Tazawa’s body of work over the past 2½ years has been 179 appearances, 71 each in 2013 and 2014 and 37 so far this season.

So that means, the “backup” setup man, Alexi Ogando, has to work more than he’s accustomed to. Ogando has been terrific this season given his past medical issues while in Texas. But in Sunday’s game he was stretched out to 1⅔ innings and allowed three runs and three hits, two of which were home runs to super rookie Carlos Correa and left fielder Evan Gattis. Strangely, both had made errors leading to a pair of Red Sox runs the previous inning. But they made up for them with the long ball and Houston took a 4-3 lead in the seventh.


Ogando had a streak of 13⅔ scoreless innings entering Sunday before the Astros got to him in the seventh.

Bullpens are always tricky and always have to be replenished, so the fact that the Red Sox are now having issues is something most teams deal with. What exacerbates the situation is when you have ineffective pieces that you have no choice but to rely upon.

Veteran lefty Craig Breslow has been hit hard. He was a key setup man for the Sox in 2013, but he since has had 1½ below-average seasons. Tommy Layne was effective earlier in the season but has stumbled recently.

The Red Sox have had a shuttle from Pawtucket, with Jonathan Aro and Noe Ramirez ineffective, Steven Wright up and down from starter to reliever, and Matt Barnes, who pitched one-third of an inning Sunday, sporting a 5.06 ERA.

Barnes has been disappointing given his high velocity fastball and good stuff. But even though he got the win Sunday by getting one batter, his appearances have not often been clean or effective.


The one reliable has been closer Koji Uehara, the reliever we had the most questions about entering the season. He earned his 19th save and overcame a Brock Holt error at second base in the ninth. But he got a nice gift when Colby Rasmus tried to bunt with two strikes and fouled it off for a strikeout.

Overall, the Sox bullpen is fourth in baseball in innings pitched — 267, behind Tampa Bay, Arizona, and Philadelphia. Their 3.94 ERA ranks them 25th, well above the league average of 3.53. Opponents are hitting .264 against Boston relievers, also putting them fourth from the bottom.

The Red Sox need to replenish.

The offense has been bailing them out, as it did when Ogando struggled in his second inning of relief Sunday.

The Sox have not often come back this season when trailing from the sixth inning on. Their offense was built this offseason to be able to overcome those situations. Sunday was a good example of why they are turning the corner.

Trailing, 4-3, in the seventh, Hanley Ramirez deposited a two-run homer into the Monster seats to give Boston the winning margin.

With Ogando having not been able to keep the Astros down, Layne, Barnes, Tazawa, and Uehara did keep them at bay to preserve the win.

Since June 1, the Red Sox offense has been the most productive in baseball.

“We’ve come back multiple times in this series and the way our offense is starting to come together we’re capable of doing that more frequently,” Farrell said. “A timely two-run homer by Hanley on a changeup out front he hit with one hand. But you look at the 11-pitch at-bat prior to Hanley [from David Ortiz] may have taken a little bit out of [Tony] Sipp.”


Also Sunday, the Red Sox got the best overall game from a catcher this season with Hanigan’s performance not only behind the plate, but getting on base four times with a walk and three singles.

The next step for Hanigan is to see whether he can have an immediate impact on Rick Porcello, who pitches Wednesday vs. Miami. Hanigan indicated he has seen some things on video that he can help Porcello with.

The length of the starters’ outings goes hand-in-hand with bullpen effectiveness. If Porcello can stay in games longer, that alleviates pressure on the relievers every time he pitches.

Something has to give there, though. Either the Red Sox need to acquire another top-shelf reliever or they need to find a starting pitcher and/or give lefty Brian Johnson a shot.

For, despite the recent uptick in performance, the hole the Red Sox have dug themselves is still tough to dig out of. The offense can’t do it alone. They must get better and longer starting pitching efforts on the days Buchholz doesn’t pitch.

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