Red Sox

Red Sox starters are a rotation of mystery

David Price delivers against the Astros on May 12.

COMMENTARY

Just when it seemed that it might have to be, of all people, Joe Kelly to the rescue.

Nope.

Instead, it was the $217 million guy the Red Sox are ultimately counting on to be a stopper who ended up putting the Boston starting pitching staff back on track Wednesday night.

David Price halted his team’s two-game skid against the Kansas City Royals with a 7 1/3 inning outing during which he allowed five hits and two earned runs for his sixth win of the season.

Thanks to the second baseman.

Ever since Dustin Pedroia was better able to translate baseball acumen than Price’s pitching coach or “pitching guru manager” apparently could, helping to fix the pitcher’s mechanics, Price is 2-0 with a 1.93 ERA, much more in line with the pitcher the Red Sox thought they were signing over the winter.

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Price’s ERA has dropped to 5.53 from its season-high of 7.06 on April 21.

“He’s getting there. He’s in command of the game,” manager John Farrell said. “The biggest thing is when he’s showing the consistent shape of his curveball. To me, that’s when his delivery is in order.”

The Red Sox, albeit only a half-game behind the Baltimore Orioles in the American League East, desperately needed this turn of events.

Through their first 39 games, including Tuesday night’s 8-4 loss to the Kansas City Royals, Red Sox starters had compiled a 4.86 ERA (23rd-best in Major League Baseball), a number that had drastically ballooned over a 10-day period. Consider that from May 9 through Tuesday, Red Sox starters — Price, Clay Buchholz, Steven Wright, Rick Porcello, and Someone Named Sean O’Sullivan — managed to combine to pitch 43 combined innings with a 6.49 ERA and 1.65 WHIP.

They were also 6-2 over that stretch thanks to top-to-bottom dazzlement of their batting order.

But Boston’s starting pitching has fallen from the somewhat surprising grace that had helped edge the team into early season contention, just when Red Sox fans were finding comfort in the prospects of Porcello finding his magic beans, Wright crafting the most devastating knuckleball in the major leagues, and Buchholz delivering something borderline respectable from the mound once a month. Alas, the reality surrounding many of the staff’s question marks emerged sooner than the Red Sox would have preferred.

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No team in baseball has scored more runs than the Red Sox, 240 and counting. But few bona fide offensive teams with suspect pitching find themselves playing meaningful baseball games deep into September, let alone October.

As if that weren’t enough to sufficiently spread the dour, the emerging promise of Eduardo Rodriguez appears to be nowhere near coming back from his knee injury. Due to continued soreness, there’s now no timetable for his return, which could be a hint of a lengthy absence on a team on which some figured him to be the No. 2 starter.

But there’s always Joe Kelly.

It’s a combination of reasons why Kelly, presumably due to return from the disabled list on Saturday against the Cleveland Indians,  looks like a veritable beacon of hope for the Red Sox. Kelly was nasty during his rehab stint Monday for the Pawtucket Red Sox, striking out 10 over 6 1/3 innings. The Norfolk Tides only managed five hits off the righty, who showed impressive command of his pitch arsenal.

There’s also the fact that he’s not Matt Young clone Henry Owens or O’Sullivan. Or Buchholz.

Good news though.

“I don’t feel like I’m that far away from being really good,” Buchholz said.

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Neat.

Buchholz gets another chance Friday night against the Indians, looking to improve in a season during which he’s had two outings in which he’s failed to surrender four or more runs. He’s 2-3 with a 6.11 ERA and coming off another slow start against the Houston Astros last weekend at Fenway Park. But Kelly is going to slide into O’Sullivan’s vacant role, and with no Rodriguez on the horizon anytime soon, the Red Sox have to continue to put their wacky trust in Buchholz.

“He brings plenty of stuff to the mound to win,” Farrell said. “Now it comes down to execution.”

It’s something the team has hardly seen from their enigmatic righty, but may have re-discovered in Price, not to mention Wright, who took the loss in the matinee portion of Wednesday’s day-night doubleheader split in Kansas City. Wright gave the Sox eight innings, allowing three runs in the sort of 3-2 loss that has nagged him much of this season.

The knuckleballer is only 3-4, despite having allowed 15 runs over his first eight outings, and those potent Red Sox bats, so effective in leading Price to a record that speaks better than his performance, have scored only 32 runs for Wright (four runs per game). They average 5.62 runs per game for every other starter.

“It’s a shame we couldn’t get the win based on how well Steven pitched,” shortstop Xander Bogaerts said. “He pitched a great game. You hate not to win a game like that when Steven goes out and saves our bullpen and keeps us in the game.”

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That’s something Porcello failed to do for the first time in nearly a year earlier this week, when he failed to pitch into the sixth inning in his worst outing of the year, allowing five runs over five innings to the Royals for his second loss of the season. The righty has floated back to earth somewhat, particularly after a stretch during which he carried 13 1/3 scoreless innings into his starts against the New York Yankees on May 6, which ended up going for his first defeat. He’s 1-2 with a 4.82 ERA in his last three outings after beginning the season 5-0 with a 2.76 ERA.

The hope is it’s not a trend beginning for Porcello, but that it is one for Price.

“That’s the best I’ve commanded all my pitches, from the beginning until I was taken out. It was definitely a step in the right direction,” Price said after his outing on Wednesday. “I feel normal, I feel good. I have confidence in all of my pitches in every situation.”

Two days until Joe Kelly. Suddenly, that doesn’t appear as drastically redeeming as it briefly needed to be.

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