Red Sox send in Tanner Houck when it was too late to save them

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 21: Tanner Houck #89 of the Boston Red Sox delivers during the first inning of a game against the Toronto Blue Jays on April 21, 2022 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 21: Tanner Houck #89 of the Boston Red Sox delivers during the first inning of a game against the Toronto Blue Jays on April 21, 2022 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images) /

The Boston Red Sox saved Tanner Houck for the end of the game

The stage was set early for the Boston Red Sox to come away with a victory in the rubber match in Tampa Bay. An aggressive lineup jumped on Rays starter Shane McClanahan for two runs in the first inning. Rich Hill turned in his best performance of the season with four scoreless innings. They knew their starter wasn’t going to go deep into this game but the Red Sox had a plan to alleviate that concern, a plan that involved Tanner Houck.

The unvaccinated Houck will miss his next start since he’s ineligible to travel to Toronto. His upcoming brief absence allowed the Red Sox to use Houck in the bullpen for Sunday’s finale against the Rays. Many of us assumed that he would be used to piggyback on Hill in much the same way that Garrett Whitlock has done. Maybe Houck wouldn’t go the distance after relieving the starter but we expected him to shut down the next several innings to keep the lead intact.

Only when the bullpen door opened for the fifth inning, it wasn’t Houck trotting out to the mound.

Phillips Valdez entered to begin the fifth inning. Perhaps he was as surprised as the rest of us to be getting the call over Houck since Valdez clearly wasn’t ready. The right-hander lacked any semblance of command with both his changeup and sinker, hitting a pair of batters and walking one to load the bases while recording only one out.

Ryan Brasier continues to draw an inexplicable level of trust from this coaching staff but he’s not entirely to blame for this bullpen meltdown. Brasier appeared to catch Ji-Man Choi looking at a 95 mph fastball near the bottom of the zone for strike three.

The pitch caught plenty of plate despite being well off the target that catcher Christian Vazquez had set for him. Vazquez was practically standing upright expecting a pitch high in the zone. He had to lunge to grab the ball, potentially blocking the view of the home plate umpire who called the pitch a ball. Granted, when you miss your target by that much you aren’t going to get the benefit of the doubt on borderline pitches, but Brasier wasn’t exactly painting the corner with this pitch. It was right over the plate and wasn’t close to being considered too low.

Choi hammered the next pitch to the wall in deep left for a two-run double. The runner from third base would score on a ground out from Manuel Margot, which would have ended the inning if Choi had struck out. Instead of the Red Sox escaping the jam unscathed, they trailed 3-2 through five innings.

A pair of weak infield singles put Matt Barnes in a tough spot with two outs in sixth and Jake Diekman failed to bail him out. One of the runners scored on a wild pitch and Randy Arozarena nearly snuck in for a second run when Diekman wasn’t paying attention. The pitcher recovered in time to nail Arozarena at the plate but that scenario had the potential to be an embarrassing disaster.

Diekman surrendered a solo homer to Yandy Diaz in the seventh and a base hit to Choi before the Red Sox finally turned to Houck to escape the inning. Houck stayed in to retire the side in order in the eighth inning.

It was the dominant performance we expected from Houck, setting down all five batters he faced. Unfortunately, it was too late to do the Red Sox any good since they had already blown the lead.

Did the Red Sox wait too long to call in Houck?

Bench coach Will Venable, who is managing the Red Sox while Alex Cora is sidelined with COVID, explained that saving Houck for later in the game was the plan all along, according to MassLive’s Christopher Smith.

"“The game plan coming in was to use him at the end of the game,” Venable said. “That’s what we had talked about coming in. We were hoping that was going to be with a lead and it wasn’t. But that was kind of the game-plan going in.”"

Revealing that the plan was discussed before the game implies that Cora was involved in the decision. Would Cora have adjusted on the fly if he knew his starter would only go four innings and the Red Sox would be clinging to a two-run lead? Hard to say. Harder to say if it would have mattered.

Venable also mentioned that Houck wasn’t going to pitch more than two innings after he threw 71 pitches in his start on Thursday. Even if he shut down the Rays for the fifth and sixth innings, the Red Sox would still need the rest of their bullpen to handle the final three frames. How can we assume they would have performed any better at the end of the game when they couldn’t hold a lead in the middle innings?

It was frustrating to watch the Red Sox blow the lead while Houck sat idle in the bullpen. It felt like their best available reliever was wasted by saving him for the end of a game they had already let slip away.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter when Houck was used if he was only able to go two innings. Not when the same pitchers who coughed up the lead would likely have been called upon anyway. Not when the offense could barely muster a threat after their encouraging start to the first inning.

It might seem like Venable’s bullpen management is to blame since he waited too long to utilize Houck but there’s plenty of blame to go around for Boston’s latest loss. Sticking to the plan that was agreed upon prior to the game is fairly low on that list of reasons why the Red Sox fell short of clinching the series against a division rival.

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