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Struggles show David Price still isn't ready for Red Sox return

BOSTON -- The question was about Chris Sale and where the Boston Red Sox might be now if they hadn't traded for him in December.

But manager John Farrell had another ace lefty on his mind Wednesday afternoon.

"He's here," Farrell said of Sale, "and soon David Price will be back. We didn't envision not having David Price. As much as you say not having Chris Sale, we envisioned having David Price. And that day is getting closer."

Just maybe not as close as the Red Sox thought.

Sale pitched, in his words, "probably pretty mediocre" Wednesday night at Fenway Park in a 9-4 victory over the Texas Rangers that gave the Red Sox their first three-game winning streak since a four-game surge April 15-18. He yielded four runs (three earned) on six hits in 7⅓ innings and struck out six, a line almost every pitcher would be happy with. But when you're accustomed to dominating the way Sale has, with a 2.34 ERA in 10 starts and 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings, your standards are impossibly high.

Price, meanwhile, made what was supposed to be his final Triple-A rehab start in his return from a spring training elbow scare. He was in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, one hour from Fenway, but after giving up six runs (three earned) on seven hits and expending 89 pitches to get through only 3⅔ innings, he must have felt light years away.

Of course, nobody knows for sure how Price felt, physically or otherwise, because he didn't stick around to speak to reporters. And Farrell deferred when he was asked if Price would be ready to start for the Red Sox next week, as had been the hope.

"We'll sit and talk with him [Thursday]," Farrell said. "We'll check with him in the morning, make sure there's no physical ailments -- which we don't expect any -- and we'll sit with him and map out the next step."

All of a sudden, it hardly seems certain the next step will come on the South Side of Chicago, where the Red Sox will open a three-game series on Memorial Day against the White Sox.

Price threw 28 pitches in the first inning and 28 more in the second against Louisville. Five days earlier, he labored in similar fashion against Buffalo. If he's having so much difficulty getting through a Triple-A lineup, imagine the challenges that will be presented by Jose Abreu, Todd Frazier and Avisail Garcia.

It's possible the Red Sox will look at the alternatives -- Triple-A lefty Brian Johnson probably will get another chance in the rotation Saturday after spot-starting Kyle Kendrick and Hector Velazquez were lousy in their auditions -- and conclude that a less-than-100-percent Price is a better bet. But it's still too early in the season to risk the long-term health of Price's elbow by rushing him back before he's ready.

And clearly, Price isn't ready.

"He came out of tonight's game feeling fine physically," Farrell said. "He got to maybe the goal number of pitches thrown. A couple of extended innings early once again. But we had a scout there that liked what he saw in terms of physical stuff. The linescore isn't going to be what we'll see going forward, but from just answering the physical side of it, I think he's answered that tonight."

At the very least, Price's struggles in Triple-A are a reminder the Red Sox can't automatically count on Price, a former Cy Young Award winner, being the pitcher everyone has known for the past eight years, standing alongside Sale at the top of the rotation.

Sale will be there in Chicago next week to face his former team. It's bound to be must-see viewing, although in the aftermath of the Red Sox scoring seven runs in the seventh inning against the Rangers to take him off the hook for a potential loss, he wasn't ready to turn his attention to the White Sox.

"I don't have time to think about that right now," he said. "Get ready for it like any other start. I've pitched a lot there, so I should be all right."

And Price?

At this point, there's no telling.