BOSTON – When the Boston Red Sox split a two-game series with the Tampa Bay Rays last week, it was an upsetting time for the bullpen.

Not only did the bullpen (namely Manny Delcarmen) give up six runs in a 9-4 loss on Wednesday, but Tuesday’s performance was nearly as bad.

Here was Boston with an 8-1 lead, yet both Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon still needed to be used in an 8-5 victory.

Bard and Papelbon are supposed to be preserving close wins in the eighth and ninth innings, not bailing out the rest of the bullpen.

And as Boston reaches the halfway mark in its 162-game season, it needs to address a serious concern.

Yes, the injuries throughout the Red Sox roster are troubling. But most of those guys on the disabled list are supposed to be coming back to give Boston a boost for the homestretch, difference-makers like Josh Beckett, Victor Martinez and Dustin Pedroia, not to mention Jacoby Ellsbury and Jason Varitek.

The only reliever on the disabled list is Delcarmen, who was diagnosed with forearm stress.

Who knows if Delcarmen can come back, let alone return and help?

And help is needed.

Delcarmen has a 4.59 ERA. His mates in the bullpen include Ramon Ramirez (4.88), Hideki Okajima (5.81) and Scott Atchison (4.62).

Left-hander Dustin Richardson is up from Triple-A and basically trying out. His ERA is 3.86, but his WHIP (walks/hits per inning) is 2.14.

“It hasn’t been seamless,” Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein said of the bullpen. “We’re fighting the ups and downs, to get to a point where we have a really reliable ‘pen. The talent’s there.

“Atchison is stepping up and finding a niche as a multi-inning guy. Still feel really good about the back end of our ‘pen with (Papelbon), despite his recent struggles, and Bard, who has done an excellent job.

“Delcarmen, Ramirez and (Okajima) continue to be three key guys. When those three guys pitch well, we have a really, really good bullpen.”

Epstein was speaking earlier last week, before Delcarmen hit the DL.

Still, Epstein really has little reason to hope Ramirez and Okajima can turn it around.

There is even concern with Papelbon (3-4, 3.71 ERA), with three blown saves. But he remains a force, albeit not as dominant as years past.

Bard (1-2, 2.04) is having a great year, but maybe too good. Manager Terry Francona relies heavily on Bard, who leads the league with 39 appearances.

So what is Epstein to do? The obvious answer is a trade. But, of course, this is not fantasy baseball, where easy deals are out there to be made.

“Every contending team could always use another useful reliever,” Epstein said. “That’s something teams are always looking to add, and we’re probably no different.

“It’s not a condemnation of our current ‘pen. But to be realistic, a really good reliever always makes your team better.”

Some names being mentioned are Arizona’s Chad Qualls and Cleveland’s Kerry Wood. Both have struggled, although Wood’s ERA in June was 3.48. Both probably would not need much in return since Boston would have to take on salaries (the rest of Qualls’ $4 million or Wood’s $10.5 million).

Other names will come up. Epstein said he has to be careful.

“When you trade for two or three months worth of a reliever, it doesn’t matter if you’re getting a good one or a great one, you still don’t know what you’re going to get,” Epstein said.

“You don’t necessarily want to give up really, really good prospects to get that type of guy because you’re not sure what you’re going to get in a small sample size from a reliever.”

Epstein said all of this without anyone mentioning Eric Gagne.

Gagne, of course, was the reliever obtained from Texas in 2007. After recording a 2.16 ERA for the Rangers, Gagne had a 6.75 in 20 games with Boston.

Fortunately for Boston, the rest of the Red Sox bullpen,which included Delcarmen, Okajima, Mike Timlin and Papelbon, came together so Gagne wasn’t needed.

To get Gagne, Boston dealt pitcher Kason Gabbard, who is back in the Red Sox organization; outfielder David Murphy, hitting .266 for Texas with two home runs and 23 RBI; and outfield prospect Engel Beltre, hitting .331 in the Class A California League.

Epstein is not likely to part with any of his prized prospects, including Portland Sea Dogs Casey Kelly, Jose Iglesias and Anthony Rizzo, to name a few. But he will trade fringe prospects in a heartbeat to bolster the bullpen.

“We’ll see,” Epstein said. “It’s an important part of the team. We have to make sure we have a good ‘pen.”

Other options for Epstein are to look to Pawtucket. Robert Manuel (1.54 ERA), a Triple-A All-Star, was called up last week to replace Delcarmen. Left-hander Rich Hill was just signed after he opted out of his minor league contract with St. Louis.

Michael Bowden (4.02) has been used as a reliever before. His numbers were not good earlier this year, but he’s improving, giving up four earned runs in his last 28 innings.

Right-hander Robert Coello, the former catcher the Red Sox signed out of the independent leagues last year, could be an option. He began the season in Portland, was promoted and has been strong in Triple-A (2.25).

Left-handed starter Felix Doubront (2.36), could be put in the bullpen, but has little experience as a reliever and Boston may not want to gamble with his development.

Epstein thinks there are skilled relievers in the organization.

“The No. 1 way you can make your bullpen better is always to try and develop as much consistency as you can from the guys you have,” he said. “In our case, we have plenty of talent out there.”

But is there dependable talent? So far, when Bard and Papelbon are needed even in routs, the answer is no.

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at:

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