Red Sox Starters Must Step Up During Current Stretch, As Bullpen’s Workload Getting Way Too Heavy

Junichi TazawaThe Red Sox worked another late night at the office on Thursday. But no one worked their fingers to the bone quite like the pitchers in Boston’s bullpen.

Boston’s ‘pen has been a strength all season, but after going eight innings in Thursday’s 5-4, 13-inning loss to the Orioles, it’s obvious that the unit is taxed. Much of that stems from unforeseeable circumstances, but it’s now up to the team’s starters to ensure that the bullpen’s workload doesn’t keep getting heavier, or else the Sox could find themselves with a long-term problem.

The Red Sox’ bullpen was solid again on Thursday, surrendering just one run, but the extra-inning affair marked Boston’s second long game this week. The Sox also played 14 innings against the Rays on Monday, during which the bullpen went 8 1/3 innings. Extended games happen from time to time, but given the current state of the Red Sox’ pitching staff, they’re becoming increasingly difficult for John Farrell to manage. The Red Sox have been forced to play what essentially amounts to an extra game during this ongoing grind. That’s tough enough to deal with under any circumstance; it’s even harder to push through when the starting rotation faces questions.

Alfredo Aceves, who tossed six innings in a spot start on Wednesday, gave the Red Sox their longest start this week. John Lackey lasted 5 2/3 innings in Monday’s extra-inning affair, allowing four runs on 10 hits. Jon Lester, who suddenly finds himself in an uncharacteristic rut, lasted just 4 2/3 innings before Jose De La Torre finished off Tuesday’s game. And Felix Doubront was yanked with two outs in the fifth inning on Thursday after loading the bases.

When you add all of this up, Red Sox starters have pitched 21 innings this week, while the bullpen has gone 22 2/3 innings. The extra innings have a lot to do with those figures, but the rotation isn’t exactly in an ideal place right now, and it’s compounding the problem.

Lester, who described Tuesday’s outing as “terrible,” has been very inconsistent of late. He’s 0-3 with a 6.90 ERA in his last five starts, and the left-hander, who is expected to consistently work deep into games, only completed seven innings in one of those outings.

Meanwhile, Clay Buchholz — another big innings provider — is battling a nagging injury. The righty is dealing with neck stiffness — which comes two starts after he returned from an AC joint problem — and his next start will come on Tuesday at the earliest.

It’s never a good thing when Boston’s two premier starters face issues — whether they are physical or performance-based. It’s crushing when such situations overlap with a trying time for the bullpen.

There have already been concerns this season about whether Farrell might eventually go to the well once too often when it comes to relievers like Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara, who have been reliable workhorses from the onset. This current stretch really magnifies those concerns, and it even caused Farrell to admit flat-out after Thursday’s game that the Sox will need another arm before Friday’s game against the O’s.

Playing two extra-inning games during a four-game stretch is certainly the exception rather than the norm. Another elongated contest isn’t the Red Sox’ only fear when it comes to the bullpen, though. It’s up to the starters to work deep into ballgames, and thus help alleviate the pressure that’s been placed on the club’s relief corps.

The bullpen can only be worked into the ground so much before fatigue turns into something more substantial.

Have a question for Ricky Doyle? Send it to him via Twitter at @TheRickyDoyle or send it here.

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