Red Sox's slow start comes back to one thing: starting pitching

HOUSTON -- By now, 17 games into the season, it goes beyond merely combining for the highest ERA of any rotation in the American League, although that 5.38 ERA is perfectly ugly on its own.

No, the Boston Red Sox's starting pitchers are so bad that they're infecting the rest of the team.

Clay Buchholz threw the latest dud here Saturday, allowing five runs in 5 2/3 innings of an 8-3 loss to the Houston Astros. And by comparison, it actually wasn't bad. He made one horrendous pitch, a mislocated two-seam fastball to Colby Rasmus, who hit it for a grand slam after flailing at back-to-back curveballs. Beyond that, Buchholz pitched relatively well, at least by 2016 Red Sox standards.

But Buchholz nevertheless failed to complete seven innings for the fourth time in as many starts. Joe Kelly couldn't do it in three starts before injuring his right shoulder. Rick Porcello has done it once in his three starts. Even ace lefty David Price, who likes to remind everyone of his goal "to get 21 outs every five days," has done that only once in four starts.

That has left the relievers to cover 60 2/3 innings, second most of any bullpen in the AL behind only Oakland. And with the offense scoring enough runs to make most games close (10 of the first 14 games were decided by three runs or fewer) and valued setup man Carson Smith on the disabled list with a strained right forearm, manager John Farrell had to overuse Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara in the season's first two weeks.

The past week has been all about playing catch-up. In the search for fresh arms, the Red Sox added an eighth reliever to the roster and still had to use Triple-A starter William Cuevas late in a tie game Thursday -- in his major league debut, no less. They used their 10th reliever Saturday when lefty Roenis Elias, another Triple-A starter, gave up three runs in the eighth inning against the Astros.

And the extra pitcher has meant a shorter bench and less in-game maneuvering for Farrell. On Saturday, Farrell made the unusual move of pinch-hitting one righty (Josh Rutledge) for another (Chris Young) because he didn't have a left-handed hitter at his disposal.

The out-of-whack roster and exhausted bullpen are culprits for only one winning streak longer than two games and an 8-9 overall record. But it all starts with the starters, who, save for knuckleballer Steven Wright (1.40 ERA through three starts), haven't pitched anywhere near good enough early in the season.

No pressure, then, on lefty Henry Owens, who joined the team Saturday and will be added to the roster to start the series finale against the Astros on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball despite having walked 10 batters in 18 innings over three starts for Triple-A Pawtucket.

"We've been operating with an extremely thin bullpen, one that in some ways has been taxed by the total number of innings pitched," Farrell said, stating the obvious. "We've got to catch up out there first."

In other words, the starters must be better. But how much better will they get?

Price, for one, will improve. He has recorded at least 21 outs in 125 of his 217 career starts, a track record that suggests he'll go deeper in most of his next 30 starts than he did in his first four. And for all his faults, Buchholz has proved capable of going on runs in which he's as effective as any pitcher in the league -- at least until the inevitable injury sidelines him in June or July.

But Kelly is sidelined indefinitely and Porcello has completed seven innings in only 14 of his 31 starts with the Red Sox dating to last year. Left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez (knee) will begin a minor league rehab assignment next week, but even when he does finally come off the disabled list, the Sox likely will be careful not to overextend him too quickly.

The rotation, at least after Price, was a concern throughout spring training, and it has been a chief problem through the first 17 games. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski proved decisive in making moves to fill needs during the offseason, but it's not nearly as easy to acquire starting-pitching reinforcements in April and May.

If the rotation doesn't shape up, the Sox run the risk of having the season slip away before Dombrowski has a chance to fix it.