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Red Sox need to take it easy with Koji Uehara

Koji had a strong outing Sunday afternoon, and John Farrell has made it sound like Uehara has a chance to win back the eighth-inning job. But putting that burden on Koji could well leave him unfit for the role when it counts the mosts

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday's victory over the Blue Jays saw John Farrell make some interesting bullpen choices. And no, that's not a code word for "bad" in this case. Obviously, with so many innings to eat, Farrell had to call on just about every available arm, and choosing Noe here and Abad there is, to some extent, a matter of picking your particular poison. But it's how the manager used the guys that seem to be pegged as the late-inning options that drew my attention. In particular: Brad Ziegler and Koji Uehara.

First off, let's give Farrell credit for breaking from the usual script in a way managers are often reluctant to when it came to his use of Ziegler. With the Blue Jays getting a leadoff single from no. 9 man Ryan Goins in the sixth, the Sox were in very real danger of seeing their recently earned lead evaporate. Again. Devon Travis, Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnacion were due up behind Goins, with Bautista set to bat if another man should reach base. Encarnacion in particular was a huge threat given that he'd already blasted a couple of homers in the game.

With these representing some of the most important at bats of the game, Farrell did not turn to one of his typical sixth-inning options, but Brad Ziegler, who has often handled the eighth and appears to be the most effective reliever on the entire roster right now. He didn't even let the inning get to Bautista, much less Encarnacion, inducing a quick double play and striking out the reigning MVP.  That also let him stay in for the bottom of the seventh, where he delivered two more quick outs before walking Troy Tulowitzki which, given Tulo's performance, might not have been the worst decision.

It was a huge hold for Ziegler and the Red Sox, but it did leave the question of who would handle the eighth. The answer: Koji Uehara.

This was a decision that could easily have backfired on Farrell and the Sox given Koji's performances this year. And really, were it not for the fact that Farrell had actually spoken about Uehara having a significant role going forward even before yesterday, it would have been reasonable to assume that the only reason he was taking the eighth was because the Sox had so few other options. But whether this was where the Red Sox wanted to use Uehara or not, Koji absolutely delivered. It doesn't really stand out in the box score, but Uehara was keeping that splitter dipping and diving like it occasionally has not this year. And importantly, it was generally doing so down in or out of the zone.

That, really, has been Koji's problem this season. When he can't keep the splitter down, it gets crushed for home runs. Uehara has allowed eight home runs this year in seven different appearances, and has only twice allowed runs without surrendering a long ball. Somehow, even in what's seemed like a death knell season, Koji has 56 strikeouts in 39 innings, and if the walks aren't as low as they once were, they're still at a very healthy level. It's really all about the homers.

We haven't seen any of those homers yet since Uehara made his return from the disabled list. He's thrown three innings, struck out five batters, and allowed just a pair of hits. All things considered, it's a bit hard to remember just how done he looked earlier in the season.

If that's going to persist, however, the Sox should probably take their foot off the gas some. The reality is that Koji is still 41, and still holds an ERA over 4.00 on the season. Given that there's not that many other options, having him as one of the eighth-inning guys? Fine. They shouldn't get locked into that, though, not only because of the benefits of flexibility (see: that Ziegler outing on Sunday) but because it's very likely to end up with Koji going south. If the Sox are trotting Koji out there every time it's close in the eighth, he's quickly going to see his pitch counts and innings totals rise again. As it stands, he's already thrown nearly 50 pitches over three appearances in just the last five days. Granted, some of that is because the Red Sox were trying to test him out in some low-leverage situations and Sunday's game just happened to get out of hand, but this is probably more then they should ask from him on a regular basis going forward.

Yes, that does limit how much they can realistically get from Uehara. Maybe he can only pitch once every three days. But if that gets them one good inning every three days rather than one good and one bad every four days, well, that's still more valuable then the last guys they've got in the bullpen right now.

Of course, there's no guarantee that even playing it very safe with Uehara's usage going forward will keep him from leaving the ball up and letting it sail out. It's possible his days of being consistent enough to be productive are simply behind him. But given the state of Boston's relief corps, it can't hurt to try and get a few more good weeks out of Koji, and their best shot at that is to pick their spots and use him sparingly.