Breaking down Saturday's pitching decisions

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Lots of unhappiness being expressed in cyberspace over Terry Francona’s pitching decisions Saturday night.

Most of the criticism revolved around two issues:

1. Why did Clay Buchholz start the eighth inning instead of Daniel Bard?

2. Why was Scott Atchison in the game?

Let’s look at both situations.

1. The Sox took a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the eighth, Victor Martinez having broken a 1-all tie with a home run in the top of the inning off the Rays' Joaquin Benoit, who has been for Tampa Bay what Bard has been for the Red Sox, a dominant setup man (1.52 ERA in 50 appearances, 43 Ks in 45 IPs). Rays starter Matt Garza had thrown just 101 pitches and allowed six hits and a run in seven innings, but Rays manager Joe Maddon went to his bullpen. And it didn’t work out.

Buchholz entered the bottom of the eighth having thrown 107 pitches. He had allowed the Rays three hits, all singles. No Tampa Bay baserunner had advanced past first until Buchholz made a two-base throwing error to first on what he intended to be a routine toss to keep Carlos Pena close to the bag. Pena scored on Matt Joyce’s foul fly, a ball that J.D. Drew said he probably should have let drop.

Buchholz’s fastball, which averaged 93 miles an hour for the game, was at 92 in the seventh. The Rays’ eighth, ninth and leadoff hitters were due to bat in the eighth. Collectively, they had gone 0-for-7 against Buchholz in the game, with the help of Ryan Kalish’s spectacular catch that took extra bases away from B.J. Upton in the second.

Buchholz has averaged 102 pitches per start. In 16 of his previous 22 starts, he has thrown at least 100 pitches. The most he has thrown in a start is 117, on April 27 at Toronto. He was pitching Saturday with an extra day’s rest because of Thursday’s off-day.

Francona had Daniel Bard and rookie left-hander Felix Doubront warming up in the eighth. Bard had worked the night before, entering in the eighth inning with the Sox ahead, 3-1, and throwing 15 pitches.

Closer Jonathan Papelbon also had pitched Friday night, throwing 23 pitches. He has matched or exceeded that number 10 times in his 53 appearances. He has pitched the next day three times after throwing as many as 23 pitches.

The Rays had six hitters batting left-handed Saturday night, including switch-hitter Ben Zobrist and John Jaso, who was scheduled to bat third in the eighth. Francona said afterward that he wasn’t necessarily planning to bring in Doubront to face the lefties, that Bard was an option.

It is clear in Francona’s decision that he hoped that he would not have to use both Bard and Papelbon Saturday night, which likely would have left him unable to use either pitcher in Sunday night’s game against the Rays. Papelbon has not pitched on three consecutive days all season. Bard has done it once, May 17-19.

Buchholz’s first pitch to Upton was ball one, a fastball. His next pitch was a curveball, only the third curve he’d thrown all night to a right-handed hitter, the first he’d thrown to Upton. It was a “get-me-over” curveball, Francona said. The Rays’ center fielder hit it into the left-field seats for a tying home run. It was the only curveball thrown by Buchholz put into play by the Rays all night.

Francona lifted Buchholz after he’d retired Jason Bartlett on a first-pitch popout. Buchholz finished with 110 pitches, allowing one earned run on four hits.

Maddon went to his bullpen and it gave up the go-ahead run. Neither Benoit nor closer Rafael Soriano, who pitched the ninth, had pitched the night before.

Francona stayed with his starter and he gave up the tying run.

Both managers had considerable justification for the decisions they made.

2. After Doubront got the last two outs of the eighth inning, Bard pitched a 1-2-3 ninth, throwing just 10 pitches. On only two occasions this season has Bard pitched more than one inning on the second day of back-to-back appearances. He blew saves on both of those occasions, April 7 in a 3-1 loss to the Yankees, Aug. 13 in a 10-9 loss to the Rangers (after having pitched just a third of an inning the night before).

Francona had Papelbon throwing lightly in the top of the 10th in case the Sox took the lead, but had no intentions of bringing him into a tie game on the road. Why not? Because if Papelbon had held the Rays scoreless in the 10th and the Sox had then taken the lead in the top of the 11th, Francona would have been without his closer to preserve the lead.

Francona had Atchison and left-hander Hideki Okajima warming up in the bullpen. Okajima had just been activated earlier that day from the disabled list, where he’d been placed with a strained hamstring. Okajima was ineffective on his rehab assignment with Pawtucket, giving up six hits and five earned runs in 2 1/3 innings.

He has endured a miserable season, with a 5.85 ERA in 40 appearances. He has had four save opportunities this season, and been charged with a blown save all four times.

Francona elected to bring in Atchison. Only twice before this season has Atchison entered a game in the eighth inning or later with the Sox either tied or ahead by three runs or fewer. The first time was on April 25 at home against the Orioles, when he entered a tie game and loaded the bases on a single, double and walk without retiring a batter. All three runners scored, and he was charged with the loss.

The second time was on Aug. 14 in Texas, with neither Papelbon nor Bard available. Atchison was called upon to relieve Jon Lester with the Sox holding a 3-0 lead entering the ninth. Atchison retired the first batter on a liner to second, but then gave up a home run to Josh Hamilton and single to Vladi Guerrero, and was replaced by Doubront, who was credited with the save in a 3-1 win.

This was the third time, and it again ended unhappily. Atchison got two quick strikes on Johnson, the leadoff batter in the inning. Johnson fouled off three pitches, took two pitches that just missed, then homered into the right-field seats.

Francona gambled and lost with Atchison in a situation for which Atchison was supposed to be nothing more than a last option. When the season began, the Sox thought they’d have Ramon Ramirez or Manny Delcarmen to use there, but Ramirez was dealt to the Giants and Delcarmen has been erratic -- in three of his last four appearances, he has been scored upon, walking three in one outing.

The only upside for Francona is that the Sox can still win this series with a victory Sunday night, and he’ll have his closer, Papelbon, available.