Bullpen problems are nothing new for the Red Sox. They’ve been dealing with ineffective relief pitching all season. What is different now is that the ship is leaking where it matters most – at the back end.

Last Thursday, the Sox suffered one of the most stunning losses of the season. They took a three-run lead into the ninth inning, and were three outs away from sweeping the Blue Jays in Toronto.

Instead, closer Jonathan Papelbon gave up three runs and suffered his career-high fifth loss of the year.

There has been plenty of unrest in Red Sox Nation about Papelbon this season, and the blown save at Rogers Centre didn’t do anything to calm those fears. It was already Papelbon’s sixth blown save of the year, tying the most he’s ever suffered in a full season. It was, at that moment, the most of any relief pitcher in the American League.

The Red Sox have stood staunchly by their closer, even though setup man Daniel Bard has been one of the most dependable relievers in the game. There is no question Bard is a closer in the making, and there are plenty of fans ready to make the change right now.

But there are too many uncertainties in this bullpen to expect one change to make enough of an impact.

The Sox 5-5 trip was further evidence of that instability, with the debacle in Toronto, a crucial home run allowed by Manny Delcarmen in Texas and the first major-league save by Felix Dubront.

The Sox have made it clear they aren’t thinking that way, even though it was Bard who relieved Papelbon with the bases loaded and one out in Toronto. It was the first time a healthy Papelbon had been taken out of a tied game by Manager Terry Francona.

A night later, Bard was back on the mound with the game on the line. But it was the seventh inning, not the ninth. Sometimes, the most important outs in a game aren’t in the ninth. They’re in the seventh and eighth.

That was certainly the case in the first game of this weekend’s series in Texas. This time it was Bard, not Papelbon, who suffered the blown save after Vladimir Guerrero’s infield single brought home the winning run.

Papelbon was warming up for the ninth inning when it happened.

The Bard vs. Papelbon argument will not die down. Bard’s numbers are clearly better. He throws harder. He would be a fine closer now.

But then, what do you do with Papelbon? Flip him with Bard? To do so would put Papelbon in a position he’s seldom been in, and there’s no guarantee he would succeed. And, as we’ve seen all year, middle relief has been Boston’s biggest weakness.

Of course, it could be an entirely different story this offseason. The Sox have Papelbon under their control for another year, and he would certainly be an attractive option for a team looking for a closer. The Sox may try to grab something in return while they can, hand the closer role to Bard and look for setup help elsewhere.

None of that helps the team now. For the first three months of the season, there seemed to be few bullpen options to get the ball to Bard and Papelbon. Now, those two pitchers are struggling, too.

 

Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.