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‘Oh, he’s close’: Red Sox keeping the faith as Chris Sale struggles in his return

Chris Sale has 19 strikeouts in his first 12 innings of 2023, but has allowed 15 earned runs, tied for seventh-most in the majors entering Monday's play.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Chris Sale’s opening to the 2023 season has produced arguably the worst three-game stretch of his career.

Entering his start against the Twins on Tuesday, the lefthander has allowed 16 runs, tied for the most he’s ever given up over a three-start span, while throwing just 12 innings, his fewest in a three-start stretch in which injury wasn’t a factor. What is the appropriate level of concern?

“Oh, he’s close. He’s close,” said pitching coach Dave Bush. “In any three-game stretch, you can be really good or really bad. But our work on the side between starts, with the command he’s showing, I’m confident that when he does that right, he’s going to be good.”

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Sale’s fastball has been particularly problematic. Opponents are 13-for-26 with four homers and two doubles against his four-seamer and sinker.

“A lot with him is just getting fastball command back under control,” said Bush. “Getting his fastball back in the zone consistently sets up the rest of the mix.”

Of course, the rest of his mix presents its own issues. Sale’s changeup has been effective, but his slider has been inconsistent.

He’s struck out a dozen batters on it, but the pitch — typically one of the most devastating in baseball — has less sweep than in past years, down from 14-15 inches of horizontal movement to about 11.5. That suggests Sale is still searching for his mechanics and feel.

To the Sox, it’s not shocking to see the veteran as a work in progress given he made just 11 big league starts from 2020-22. The team has seen enough flashes of quality to remain optimistic about what he’ll look like once he’s deeper into the season.

“He hasn’t pitched in four years, honestly. In ‘19, he wasn’t healthy,” said manager Alex Cora. “We’ll wait to Cinco de Mayo to see where we’re at.”

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Running with Duran

Baseball’s new rules have some teams running wild, but the Red Sox entered Monday with just seven steals, tied for sixth-fewest. They’ve been astute when taking their shots, going 7-for-7 in steal attempts, but haven’t had a player with game-changing speed to take advantage of the pitch clock and limits on pitchers stepping off and throwing to a base.

That changed Monday. The team called up outfielder Jarren Duran from Triple A and optioned Bobby Dalbec back to the WooSox prior to the 5-4 loss.

With center fielder Adam Duvall sidelined by a broken wrist, Kiké Hernández had been playing center regularly with the Sox facing a run of lefthanded starters. But Shohei Ohtani marked the first of at least three straight against righties. The Sox plan to use Duran and Raimel Tapia in center while moving Hernández to short against righties.

Jarren Duran, seen here diving safely into third as he advanced from second on a sacrifice fly in the seventh inning, added a stolen base in Monday's loss.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Duran was hitting .195 in 51 plate appearances in Worcester this year, but with a .353 on-base, .439 slugging mark, and considerably higher walk rate (20 percent) and lower strikeout rate (22 percent) than in past years. He’s raised his hands from an extremely low position to roughly letter-high, producing a line-drive approach that the Sox believe will unlock the best version of his offense.

“It made me feel more comfortable in the box, just kind of like kind of my old swing used to be with my hands higher,” said Duran. “It just feels like I was going back to something I know.”

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The Sox are hopeful Duran, hitting at the bottom of the order, can get on base enough to present a speed threat who disrupts pitchers as they prepare to face the top of the order. On Monday, he went 1-for-3 with a double and walk, and stole second on a pitchout.

“I think the game is kind of molded to his speed right now, so hopefully we can take advantage of it,” Cora said.

Story keeps working

Trevor Story, just over three months removed from his internal bracing procedure in his right elbow, has been throwing at 60 feet in the batting cage every other day for about a week.

“It’s going really good. It’s exciting,” said Story. “Each day has gotten progressively better.”

Story has been tracking pitches from each night’s opposing starter on the team’s Trajekt Arc system to keep his vision sharp, and expects to start swinging next week.

“I couldn’t be happier with how the progression has gone so far,” he said.

For starters, six

With Brayan Bello off the injured list, the Sox will temporarily employ a six-man rotation, with Sale, Corey Kluber, and Tanner Houck scheduled to start in the coming three-game series against the Twins. The team will reassess its plans after the April 27 off-day, when lefthander James Paxton also could be nearing a return . . . In addition to swapping out Duran for Dalbec, the Red Sox designated righthander Jake Faria for assignment to clear a spot for Bello. Faria spent one day (Sunday) on the Sox roster . . . Hernández, in his first start at short since April 11, committed his fifth throwing error (and sixth overall) at the position in 12 games this year . . . Catcher Reese McGuire fired from his knees to throw out Ohtani at second on a stolen base attempt in the sixth. Opponents had been successful in their first 15 steal attempts on McGuire . . . Christian Arroyo had a leg cramp on a sixth-inning groundout. He stayed in the game until being replaced by pinch-hitter Alex Verdugo in the ninth . . . Duran and Verdugo met up on the field before the game with World Baseball Classic teammate Patrick Sandoval and Team Mexico manager Benji Gil, the Angels’ infield coach . . . Former Red Sox Mike Myers, Ryan Dempster, and Brock Holt ran the Boston Marathon for charity. Lakyn Holt and Kourtney Turner (wife of DH/first baseman Justin Turner) also ran, as did Dawn and Mikaela Timlin, the wife and daughter of former Red Sox reliever Mike Timlin.

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Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him @alexspeier.