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Red Sox tweak bullpen, but still awaiting return of reliever Carson Smith

BOSTON -- Based on the way right-hander Noe Ramirez was used through the Boston Red Sox's first 12 games, it was clear he has not yet earned manager John Farrell's confidence.

Heath Hembree is about to get his turn to make a better impression.

The Red Sox optioned Ramirez to Triple-A Pawtucket on Tuesday and recalled Hembree, who will be available for the opener of a three-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday night at Fenway Park. Hembree will join a bullpen that includes several right-handed options. But until injured reliever Carson Smith (forearm strain) returns from the disabled list, there are only three -- setup men Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara and closer Craig Kimbrel -- whom Farrell trusts to hold a lead.

Uehara, in particular, has been used often early in the season, his eight appearances tied for second-most in the majors behind only Chicago White Sox's Zack Duke (nine). The 41-year-old struggled badly in the eighth inning Monday, walking two batters and hitting another and allowing four runs in a 4-3 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays.

"I've leaned on him, there's no doubt about it," said Farrell, who added he would prefer not to use Uehara for a few games. "I've pushed him. Bullpen usage, you get into a situation where you've got a lead, you've got a couple of guys, three guys you're looking to go to in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, and I've pushed him early."

It all highlights the importance of Smith getting healthy. On Tuesday, he threw 25 pitches in a simulated game, an activity he's expected to repeat Thursday. If that goes well, he will pitch in an extended spring game Saturday, then possibly begin a minor-league rehab assignment next week. Based on that schedule, it's possible Smith could be ready by an April 29-May 1 series against the New York Yankees at Fenway Park -- or shortly thereafter.

"With his role, the type of reliever he is, yeah, we anticipate this going relatively, I don’t want to say relatively quick, but it’s certainly not a number of outings where you’ve got to build up 60-70 pitches," Farrell said. "In talking with him the other night over the phone, we felt like this week will be a very good work test for him with the Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday schedule, and then things could advance relatively quick from there."

Ramirez made six appearances but never entered a game with a lead. In his only true high-leverage situation, he came into a tie game in the sixth inning April 12 against the Baltimore Orioles and allowed an inherited runner to score before giving up a run of his own in the seventh. In his most recent appearance, Ramirez walked two batters in a scoreless ninth inning Monday against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Overall, Ramirez posted a 4.91 ERA and allowed seven hits and six walks in 7 1/3 innings.

Hembree hasn't allowed a run in five scoreless innings for Pawtucket. He has given up only two hits and struck out nine without walking a batter. Hembree has a 3.14 ERA in 37 career relief appearances for the San Francisco Giants and the Red Sox.

Farrell suggested the tendencies of the Rays hitters, in addition to opposing hitters in upcoming series against the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves, will make Hembree a better fit in the bullpen than Ramirez.

"We go up against some lineups here these next two, three series with more lefties in it," Farrell said. "And while Noe's arm slot is geared toward maybe potentially better effect against right-handers, we look to get more of a top-to-bottom breaking ball and a four-seam fastball against this group."