The Boston Red Sox are going with a six-man rotation for now, with Tanner Houck added to the mix. He struck out eight Yankees in 4 2/3 innings on Thursday. Elise Amendola/Associated Press

What a difference a year makes.

Last year, the Boston Red Sox were in the midst of their first homestand of the season. They would wrap it up on July 28 with a 1-4 record, three games out of first place. It was the start of a miserable season, one that would see an MLB-high 16 different pitchers start games for Boston.

It was the most starting pitchers used by the Sox in a season since 1952. And the season only lasted 60 games.

Fast forward to 2021. The Red Sox played their 100th game of the season on Sunday, a stunning 5-4 come-from-behind win over the Yankees. The win was all about the late-game offense, as the Sox went from being no-hit through seven innings to stringing together five runs in the eighth.

Starter Martín Pérez went six innings and is unbeaten the last eight times he has gone five or more innings. Trouble is he has failed to make it to five innings in five of his last nine starts.

The good news is Pérez has already made 20 starts this season, one of five Sox starters with at least 19 starts. The other, rookie Tanner Houck, will remain in what is a six-man rotation for the time being. He’ll start Wednesday against the Blue Jays.

Manager Alex Cora has only had to use six starters this season, the fewest starting pitchers to appear for any team this season. He hasn’t had to use an “opener,” hasn’t had to patch together a “bullpen game,” hasn’t had to blow out his relievers to get through a game.

As a result, his bullpen has the third lowest ERA in the American League.

This is reminiscent of 2004, when five Boston pitchers made 29 or more starts on the way to a championship. Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield and Bronson Arroyo answered the bell every fifth day. It’s almost unheard of, and something we never expected to see from this current rotation.

On Friday we were reminded that the most stable rotations are still fragile. Eduardo Rodriguez left the game in the second inning, suffering from migraine symptoms. The Red Sox will keep an eye on him in the days ahead, well aware of his recent medical history. Anyone who went through COVID-19 and myocarditis deserves special attention. And the Sox are going to take care of one of their best young pitchers.

The good news is Houck was outstanding on Thursday, striking out eight Yankees over 4 2/3 innings. He’s clearly ready to keep a spot in the rotation if there’s an opening. And he might force his way into it if there isn’t.

And Chris Sale has spent the past week tuning up in games at Hadlock Field in Portland. On Sunday against Harrisburg, he lasted 3 2/3 innings, striking out nine batters while hitting 96 mph on the radar gun.

Sale has enjoyed his getaway to Casco Bay. Last week he was supposed to join the Red Sox in Boston between starts but instead stayed with the Sea Dogs.

“They’ve made me feel welcome,” Sale said Sunday, “and I appreciate that.”

Sale will move on to Triple-A Worcester for his next start, and join the Red Sox rotation some time in August. That will be after the MLB trade deadline on Friday. His return, and the work of Houck, means Red Sox President of Baseball Operations Chaim Bloom can focus on strengthening the bullpen. He’ll have to battle every other team in the hunt. Everyone wants pitching help.

The fact that Bloom doesn’t need a starter, after last year’s historically high ERA, represents a stunning turnaround. You may not have noticed, but it’s been the bedrock to a stunning run to first place.

Tom Caron is a studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on NESN. His column runs on Tuesdays in the Portland Press Herald.


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