BOSTON -- The Red Sox are pulling out all of the big guns for a four-game series with the Rays that kicked off at Fenway Park on Thursday.

Adrian Gonzalez (left calf tightness) and David Ortiz (back spasms) were both back in the lineup, though manager Terry Francona said if the Rays hadn't reduce the Red Sox's lead in the American League Wild Card race to just four games with 14 left to play, neither slugger would be playing.

"Probably not," Francona said. "I'm being real honest. ... But for me, these are important games.

"This is way better than last year, I'm telling you. This time last year, I think we were starting to talk about this year. That wasn't good. Right now, we're fighting our fannies off to try to continue to play. That's not the worst feeling in the world."

Gonzalez left Wednesday's 5-4 loss to the Blue Jays in the seventh inning with tightness in his left calf, but he felt fine Thursday.

Ortiz was a late scratch from Tuesday's starting lineup with spasms in his back and hasn't played since Sunday.

"He's still sore, but he's good enough to play," Francona said. "I think this time of year, they understand their responsibilities and we'll keep an eye on them. Both of them wouldn't play if they didn't think they could be productive, or we wouldn't let them play."

Francona confident Bard will revert to form

BOSTON -- Daniel Bard was the first to admit he hasn't been on top of his game lately, but manager Terry Francona said the Red Sox will stick with their eighth-inning setup man through thick and thin.

"I think we'd be kidding ourselves," Francona said. "I don't think we can win without Bard being Bard. I remember last year, it was this time that everybody wanted Bard to be the closer. We stuck with [Jonathan Papelbon], and he's done OK. There's certain players that we'd better figure it out as opposed to running from guys."

Bard has picked up the loss in three straight appearances, his most recent coming Wednesday night when he turned a two-run lead into a 5-4 loss to the Blue Jays after an eighth-inning meltdown.

Afterward, Francona called Mike Cather, a former pitching coach with Double-A Portland and now an advanced scout with the Red Sox, to come to Boston and take a look. Cather helped Bard out of a similar funk with his mechanics back in 2008 and was back at Fenway Park on Thursday to watch Bard work out in Boston's bullpen.

"There are some things they'd like to try to get a little more consistent in his arm swing, which I think will be helpful," Francona said.

"The timing with my delivery is just not there," the reliever said Wednesday night. "I can feel it on every pitch. Something feels a little bit different. ... It's something I've fixed before and I'll fix it again. I'll do what it takes the next couple of days to put in the work and find my delivery again."

Bard's ERA has jumped from 2.10 to 3.10 over his last three outings.

"We believe in Daniel so much," Francona said.

Lowrie gets cortisone shot in ailing left shoulder

BOSTON -- After receiving a cortisone shot in his left shoulder on Tuesday, Jed Lowrie was not in Thursday's starting lineup against the Rays for the second straight game, but he'll be available off the bench if manager Terry Francona needs him.

Lowrie hurt his shoulder in May after colliding with Carl Crawford and eventually missed 45 games with tightness and swelling. As first reported by the Boston Herald, the cortisone shot was the only other option for the Red Sox infielder if he wanted to continue to play this season.

As Boston fends off Tampa Bay for the American League Wild Card, the shot is supposed to reduce the swelling and save Lowrie's year from being over.

"I think it sounded like those were the two options, and I wanted to do whatever I could to be out there and to help the team and really just get the shoulder feeling better," he said Thursday. "And [team doctors] said it would do all that."

Lowrie is hitless in his last 16 at-bats, and after his torrid April (.368 average) in which he earned the starting job over Marco Scutaro, his season has yet to hit that same stride, with a .216 average over 222 at-bats since.

The 27-year-old said he doesn't like to make excuses, but his ailing shoulder has made it difficult to swing the bat consistently, and that fatigue has been the biggest issue.

"You play the hand that you're dealt, but I think the hand I've been dealt right now, it's tough to deal with," he said. "It's tough to hit when your shoulder's inflamed and all sorts of things are going on at once. I'm going to do whatever I can to make sure I can help this team win, however I can."

Buchholz could throw bullpen session Saturday

BOSTON -- Prior to Thursday's game with the Rays, Clay Buchholz made another stride toward recovering from a back injury that has kept him sidelined since June.

Buchholz threw 15 pitches in the bullpen and 15 more "short box," where the catcher sets up in front of the plate.

"He felt good, so that's really good news," said manager Terry Francona, who noted that the righty is scheduled to throw a bullpen session on Saturday. "Everything has been terrific, actually. If there's a point where we need to slow him down, we will."

The Red Sox have yet to rule out a return for Buchholz this year.

"We haven't closed the door on the fact that he might be able to pitch, which is certainly important," said Francona. "The other thing is that we want him to go home feeling good about himself, because this kid is an important part of not only our present, but our future."

Saturday's bullpen session could be telling of where Buchholz stands, particularly if his back feels good Sunday.