BOSTON -- Before we get started, let's get this out of the way: No, Brad Ziegler wasn't available to pitch Tuesday night. The Red Sox sent him home with a full-blown case of the flu, so this wasn't a matter of manager John Farrell using the wrong reliever in the top of the eighth inning of a tie game.
Here's the issue: Even if Ziegler had been sitting in the bullpen, there's no guarantee that the right-handed submariner would have pitched. After all, Brad Miller was due to bat third in the inning for the Tampa Bay Rays, and Farrell prefers to not use Ziegler against left-handed hitters.
Clay Buchholz might have been the choice all along, especially because Farrell made clear last weekend and reiterated earlier Tuesday that the longtime starter would get a chance to pitch in the late innings of close games. In his first real experience as a setup man, Buchholz failed to locate a fastball to notorious Red Sox killer Evan Longoria, who launched a solo homer over absolutely everything in left field to account for a 4-3 Rays victory at Fenway Park.
"It's a different role, different title. You've still got to go out there and make pitches, especially when you're playing teams in this division," Buchholz said. "Regardless of how far back the Rays are, they've still got a good ballclub and a lot of good hitters on that team. You can't let one of their big sticks beat you, and I did."
Consider it a lesson learned for Buchholz, one of many in a role that must feel as foreign to him as another language.
As a starter in the big leagues for 10 years, he usually could survive giving up a solo homer on a fastball that was left over the plate, rather than being placed up and away, as intended. But there's far less margin for error late in close games. Those situations are aptly termed "high leverage." They're also high voltage, and it's a lot easier to get lit up.
"Part of that job late in games is if you miss, you've got to miss to the extreme," Farrell said. "He's trying to elevate a fastball on a 1-2 count. Didn't get it up enough, obviously, and it ended up probably toward the inner half of the plate. Other than that, I thought Clay was throwing the ball very well in the eighth. A fastball that doesn't get to the spot is the difference in this one."
Sometimes in the eighth inning, that's all it takes, which is why it's so dangerous that Farrell doesn't have a setup man he can trust for all seventh- and eighth-inning situations.
Perhaps 41-year-old right-hander Koji Uehara will return next week from the strained right pectoral muscle that has sidelined him for the past seven weeks and bring stability to the back end of the bullpen. At this point, that's all that can save Farrell from having to navigate the seventh and eighth innings with an imperfect mix of Ziegler, Buchholz, Matt Barnes, Junichi Tazawa, Robbie Ross Jr., Fernando Abad and possibly September call-up Joe Kelly.
Farrell calls it "matching up" in the late innings, but it feels more like dodging land mines. The Red Sox have lost 19 games after leading or being tied after six innings, an indictment of a bullpen that simply isn't good enough to leave anyone feeling comfortable that Boston can consistently win the close, low-scoring games that are so common down the stretch and in the playoffs.
"I'd love to be able to sit here and say that [innings] seven, eight and nine are outlined, regardless of matchups. We don't have that type of bullpen," Farrell said. "So we're going to continue to work to take the best advantage of the guys that we have. Against certain lineups, that could be [Buchholz's] role. If we're in a heavily right-handed-hitting lineup, we're likely to position Ziegler to be in that spot.
"You want a guy to grab the opportunity and lock it down. I want Clay to feel like that's his place in this bullpen right now. We want him to feel comfortable in that spot because we're going to lean on him against lineups such as Tampa's or New York's, where you've got a number of right-left combinations in there. We need him to grow into that comfort level of being in that spot."
Buchholz claims he's ready for the challenge. After all, he started Game 4 of the 2013 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals while pitching through a shoulder injury. The stakes don't get much bigger than that.
"I've thrown in a lot of games that were high leverage. It's just a matter of making pitches," Buchholz said. "Obviously, that's a pitch [to Longoria] that I didn't make. Our starters have been throwing the ball really well. That leaves it to the guys in the back end to pick up the slack whenever your name is called upon. Tonight it was a one-pitch mistake by me, and it cost us the game."
In the eighth inning, one pitch can be a reliever's undoing. The Red Sox are counting on Buchholz to be a fast learner.