BOSTON — The Red Sox have the first 24 outs pretty well accounted for. It's the last three that are proving problematic.
Koji Uehara on Sunday became the latest victim of the 2013 Closer Curse, joining Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey and even Junichi Tazawa. Uehara allowed a game-tying homer to Toronto Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista in a game the resilient Red Sox nonetheless won, 5-4.
On a team with relatively few holes, the bullpen looms large. The issue isn't quality; it's about depth and dominoes, because the trickle-down effect of shifting Uehara to the ninth inning is being felt across the relief corps.
"We might not be a perfect team, but we sit at the top of the division right now," manager John Farrell said. "We know where our challenges lie, and we're doing everything we can to improve in any way we can."
Both Craig Breslow and Andrew Miller were asked to go multiple innings Sunday, and it cost them a run when Breslow — following a magnificent Houdini act in the sixth inning to escape Ryan Dempster's bases-loaded, one-out jam — allowed a solo home run to Jose Reyes in the seventh that pulled the Blue Jays within a run. After such a high-stress situation, Breslow ideally would've handed the ball off for the start of the seventh.
Instead Alex Wilson and Miller combined to navigate the inning after Breslow gave up the homer, with Miller then pitching the eighth before Uehara surrendered the lead in the ninth.
It seems like we've been referring to the middle relievers as overworked since the second week of April, and that adjective can only be applied so many times before it yields to "injured."
What makes the lack of a reliable ninth-inning arm so problematic is the fact that the pieces are in place for a dominant bullpen. The Sox have power arms in Miller and Tazawa, though the latter's stuff isn't what it was during a revelatory 2012. They've got the lefty in Breslow who's more than a specialist. They've got Uehara for the eighth. Wilson has answered the call as a long man, and the versatile Alfredo Aceves waits in the wings.
But everyone's role becomes jumbled without that last line of defense, and sometimes the bridge to the ninth ends up being built of Tinkertoys, with one feeble connection dooming the entire structure.
"That's why Andrew Bailey, getting him back on track, is one of our main goals right now," Farrell said. "It would give our bullpen a huge lift and this team a huge lift."
Bailey's return to form represents the simplest solution, and he looked better in his last appearance Friday against the Blue Jays . . . at least until serving up a game-tying homer in the seventh.
The front office is exploring both internal and external options to address the ninth, though they'd love to see either Bailey or Uehara solidify the job. The concern with the latter isn't performance but durability, and he admitted Sunday to still feeling tired after his fourth appearance in five days.
Pitching coach Juan Nieves isn't sounding any alarms. He noted factors that should contribute to decreased workloads in the second half. For one, relievers typically throw more pitches in April while starters build stamina. For another, he said these relievers are particularly good about letting the staff know when they need a day off.
"We stress the fact we don't want any heroes," Nieves said. "We want guys to pitch the whole season."
The reality is that rarely happens.
"Hopefully you're clicking in the last month of the season," Nieves said. "Usually there are bumps and bruises. It happens to every staff. You never have a perfect five starters all season, and you never have seven guys all season in the bullpen. I don't think there's ever been a team like that. It's expected. We have Plan B and Plan C at all times."
The Red Sox are the American League's first 50-win team, so this issue isn't hurting them yet. But it'd sure be nice to have a Plan A in place by the time the games really matter.