Mason: Red Sox need more from their starters, too

FILE — Chris Sale's 3.82 ERA would be a career high. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

First things first: The Red Sox bullpen hasn’t been good. This is in no way denying that.

The London series showed an international audience how ineffective they’ve been, but coming into the season, everybody in New England knew the relievers were a giant question mark. They’ve proven that skepticism to be well-founded. 

But because of bullpen implosions, we’ve let the rotation off the hook. And the Red Sox were crafted to be carried by their starters.

Dave Dombrowski invested $88 million in his five horses for 2019, and halfway through the season, they’ve haven’t been running like throughbreds. For reference, those five are making $26 million more than Tampa Bay’s entire payroll. 

Top to bottom, the starters haven’t been good enough. They haven’t gone deep enough into ballgames, and there’s a reason none will be representing the Red Sox at this month’s All-Star Game. 

Chris Sale has been a tough-luck loser a few times, but the fact remains he’s going to go a calendar year without a regular season win at Fenway Park. No matter the circumstances, that can’t happen for a team’s ace. Sale’s 3.82 ERA would be a career high and he’s pitched into the eighth inning twice all season.

He’s been middling, not terrible, but there’s another level Sale can get to, and he’d be the first to tell you that. 

David Price has been the best pitcher on the staff, but we haven’t seen enough of him. The $217 million lefty only threw 72 1/3 innings in the first half, and had five starts of five innings or fewer.

Yes, he’s coming off a ridiculous October workload, but for the sake of comparison, Justin Verlander, the likely AL All-Star starter, has logged 119 2/3 innings already. 

The first half was basically a complete wash for Nathan Eovaldi, who has spent two-and-a-half months on the Injured List. The spot starters in his place haven’t offered much of anything; his absence has been felt.  

Like Sale, Rick Porcello’s 5.07 ERA also is the highest of any season in his career. Though there have been flashes of dominance, he simply hasn’t given the Red Sox a chance in far too many of his outings. Saturday’s implosion in London was the sixth time this season Porcello has been tagged for at least five runs. 

While on the topic of the London series, Sunday’s shellacking was a strong illustration of what’s gone wrong in the first half. Eduardo Rodriguez is armed with seemingly limitless potential, but given a 4-0 lead after the first inning, he walked the leadoff man in the second instead of attacking him. 

That lit the fuse on a chain reaction: Three walks lead to a 37-pitch second inning, which led to Rodriguez getting a hook after 5 1/3, which led to the bullpen being asked for 11 outs, which led to another absolute meltdown.

It felt inevitable that Red Sox relievers were going to be rocked by the Yankees with the ball pinging around like a superball, but wherever the venue, it’s been happening all season.

The bullpen shoulders all the blame — and they absolutely deserve a lot of it — but at what point are Sox starters going to start taking matters into their own hands and going deeper into ballgames, too? For a pricey rotation, they don’t have a single starter in the Top 20 in innings pitched. 

It’s certainly possible for them to come around. Just look at what’s happened down at Nationals Park over the past month. 

Washington opened June at 24-33, a seemingly lifeless also ran in the NL East. They finished the month 42-41, smack in the middle of the Wild Card hunt. 

The biggest reason for that? Max Scherzer. 

Washington has the worst bullpen in baseball (6.30 ERA), but Scherzer — Sale’s counterpart in the last three All-Star Games — ensured they wouldn’t be blowing his starts. The Nats ace went 6-0 with a 1.00 ERA in June and his average start was into the eighth inning. He never asked more than six outs of his bullpen, and often only three. 

The Red Sox staff needs some Scherzer in them. Sale and Price are both capable of pitching at that level, and Porcello won a Cy Young once, too. 

The bullpen is obviously an issue that Dombrowski has needed to address for months. But the fact is, he hasn’t. It’s time for the starters to pitch to their pedigree and stop handing the relievers the ball so early in the game. 

Chris Mason is a Red Sox beat writer for the Eagle-Tribune and CNHI Sports Boston. Email him at cmason@northofboston.com, and follow him on Twitter at @ByChrisMason