MLB: Houston Astros at Boston Red Sox

CHRIS SALE

AMONG the myriad problems that has dropped the Red Sox into the world of mediocrity — 11 games out of first place through Wednesday — none is any bigger than what has happened to Chris Sale.

The bullpen, minus a closer, has been a mess. Mookie Betts is 80 or so points behind last year. Andrew Benintendi isn’t hitting. The Dustin Pedroia situation left them without a starting second baseman (even though Brock Holt has been great).

Injuries — and the Yankees would laugh at this premise — to Nathan Eovaldi, Mitch Moreland and Steve Pearce have been costly.

The list of problems is lengthy.

But in so many ways, Sale being 3-8 with a 4.04 ERA at the All-Star break has to be the most troubling for a team that gave the skinny left-hander $145 million a year before the money HAD to be spent.

Remember, owner John Henry publicly announced he didn’t want another Bruce Hurst on his hands. For those of you too young to remember a Boston world without weekly duck boat parades, the Red Sox in 1988 gambled on not signing Hurst in his option year and it blew up in their faces.

This time, they decided to shell out the dough for Sale, one of the very best pitchers in baseball. Putting the Betts and J.D. Martinez situations to the back burner, they gave the big bucks to Sale.

Then they babied him and the other starters after the long 2018 run. Sale came out of the gate looking like “Garage Sale” and contributed to the team’s rotten start. Then he turned it around, and announcer Dave O’Brien was touting him as an All-Star, even with only a few wins. Now, Sale is back looking for answers.

“I’m 3-8. That’s absolutely embarrassing,” Sale said after yielding three homers in his third straight poor start against the lowly Blue Jays on Wednesday night. “That’s not what I need to be and that’s not who I need to be for this team. On a team like this, they need me to be better. And I haven’t been there for them.”

Now, Sale returns from the break — a rest he’ll have after starting the last three All-Star Games and making seven straight All-Star teams — trying to reverse his history.

You see, and we’ve mentioned this here before, Sale came into this season 77-33 through July, but just 26-29 in August through the end of the season.

Said Sale: “I stand before you as frustrated as I’ve ever been.”

Sale threw to Christian Vazquez Wednesday. Not Sandy Leon, his apparent personal catcher. That triggered a Twitter war over the move — and Sale then raised his ERA throwing to Vazquez to 6.68. It is 2.96 with Leon behind the plate.

Now, great pitchers have had their catchers in the past. Greg Maddux had Eddie Perez. Going way back, Steve Carlton had Tim McCarver. It’s nothing new, but Alex Cora had to explain the obvious before Wednesday’s start: Vazquez is on fire with the bat.

“What he’s doing (offensively),” Cora said. “I know the guy on the mound. He’s good. And he can do it. Sometimes we don’t score a lot of runs for Chris. Hopefully we prevent them and we score.

“He’s been one of the best catchers in the big leagues. I think I saw today, he’s No. 1 in WAR (among catchers). So that was the reason. Good game-planning, go for it. He’s pitched to Christian before. He’s been good with him, too. He’s swinging the bat too good right now for us to sit him.”

Cora was right.

But this is 2019, not 2018.

Vazquez has been worthy of an All-Star nod and is one of the AL players who barely missed out (Rafael Devers should be going, Betts should NOT). This was a no-brainer for the skipper. It didn’t work out and that’s on Sale, who, by the way, had gotten hammered in his previous two starts WITH Leon behind the plate.

Sale has made 18 starts, allowing 16 homers in 127 innings. Last year, he was 12-4, yielding 11 homers in 158 innings. In the last five seasons, he has never lost more than 11 games.

Is he hurt? Is he complacent after getting the big money? Is it just a bad year, something that happens to even the best of them? There isn’t one answer. All we know is that Chris Sale hits the All-Star break 3-8 with a 4.04 ERA — and has allowed 13 earned runs in 14 2/3 innings over his last three starts.

And he might just be another example/reason why we haven’t had a repeat champion in Major League Baseball since 2000.

Up and down

Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly, the two relievers allowed to walk away after last season’s championship, were both on display for their new teams Wednesday night.

With mixed results.

Kimbrel, who struggled in last year’s postseason and then foolishly sought a six-year/$100 million deal, blew a game for the Cubs in his third time out, taking the loss while blowing the save. He has allowed five earned runs in 2 2/3 innings over three outings.

Kelly, a disaster out of the gate for the Dodgers after signing his big deal, worked a perfect 10th inning — 11 pitches, 10 strikes, one strikeout — and got the win as Cody Bellinger gave the Dodgers their record fifth straight walkoff win with a homer in the bottom of the inning.

Kelly lowered his ERA to 5.76. He improved to 2-1 with a 2.35 ERA in his last 15 outings, 2-0 with a 1.08 in his last seven, coinciding with his bobblehead night at Dodger Stadium.

The Red Sox bullpen, which will apparently have Eovaldi at the back end when the righty returns, got Heath Hembree back for the series finale at Toronto.

Hembree was one of the guys having a good year when he went down.

Special salute

We usually use this space during the week for Red Sox and Boston notes, but we have to give a shoutout to Patrick Corbin. After the death of good friend Tyler Skaggs, Corbin, No. 46 for the Nationals, asked for and was granted permission to wear Skaggs’ No. 45 for his Tuesday night start — a day after Skaggs passed away in Texas.

Corbin worked seven innings — even with a 90-minute rain delay in the middle — and left with a 2-1 lead after yielding seven hits, striking out seven and not walking anyone.

“Yeah, it’s been hard,” Corbin said. “I’ve just been thinking of Tyler, his wife Carli, his family. You can’t believe he’s gone.”

Finally, apologies for an omission (of sorts) in Wednesday’s column. Letting you know in advance of the piece I could be forgetting a death of a player, a reader pointed out I overlooked Donnie Moore, who shot his wife and then killed himself, ending the depression that followed what happened to him against the Red Sox in the ’86 ALCS. And, yes, he was another member of the Angels to meet a tragic end.

But his career was over — the names I brought up were active when they died.

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Mike Shalin covers Boston pro sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His email address is shalinmike@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter @mscotshay.