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Red Sox rotation has its bodies back, but remains deeply lacking

Tanner Houck battled to keep the Dodgers off the scoreboard for three innings Sunday, but James Outman (rear) hit one into the Red Sox bullpen in the fourth, giving the Dodgers a lead they would never relinquish.Steven Senne/Associated Press

The Red Sox filled two rotation spots with bullpen games much of the summer to deal with starting pitchers on the injured list. Sunday’s 7-4 defeat against the Dodgers might as well have been one, too.

Tanner Houck, still going through his progression in his second start since being reinstated from the injured list, went just four innings and tossed 80 pitches. Chris Murphy came in for relief and was pounded for six runs in the next four.

“We needed to do that,” Cora said.

The Red Sox were banking on the return of Houck and Chris Sale to give the rotation a significant boost. Pitch limits, however, still force Cora to depend on a relief group that has been overworked all season.

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To add to that, James Paxton seems as though he’s fading, with a 5.84 ERA in five starts this month and a 9.39 ERA for the season on regular (four days) rest, versus a 1.95 ERA when he gets an extra day. Kutter Crawford has thrown 85 pitches just five times in 17 starts this season. That leaves Brayan Bello as the only reputable starter with 31 games left to play and two teams to chase down for a playoff berth.

“That’s part of 162. Guys are going to go six or seven, and then they are going to grind through it. We just got to find a way. We got to get better,” said Cora. “We’ve been facing some good hitters, tough lineups just like ours that they’re gonna keep grinding with you. The pitch counts going up, and you’re gonna go through stretches like this, but we will be better.”

Chris Murphy, called up from Worcester before Sunday's loss to the Dodgers, was leaned on for 90 pitches by Alex Cora as the Red Sox try to work through a severely taxed bullpen.Tanner Pearson For The Boston Globe

The Red Sox are banking on Houck being a full go in his next start, and Sale should be able to go deeper Monday after tossing 80 pitches Wednesday in Houston.

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“I’m excited to be able to go out there, get to 100 pitches, and have no leash,” said Houck.

Whether Houck and Sale can provide the boost the club sorely needs will be a huge factor in the Sox’ ultimate fate.

Yoshida out of lineup again

Masataka Yoshida was out of the starting lineup for a second straight contest as he continues to hone his swing alongside the Sox’ hitting coaches. He ground out as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning, putting his line for August at .247/.253/.341 — a .594 OPS — with one home run and a lone walk, which came on Aug. 8.

“He’s kind of grinding through a few things mechanically and they have been working,” said Cora. “Just one walk in August. That tells you the whole story.

“He’s getting back to the basics. The last at-bat [Friday] was a good one, the line drive the other way. There was a foul ball that he hit the other way, too, that I really liked. So kind of like backtrack the ball and start driving it the other way. So they’re working hard.”

Yoshida is expected to be back in the lineup for Monday’s series opener against the Astros.

Devers day-to-day

Rafael Devers was a late scratch Sunday after he was hit by a pitch on the right wrist Saturday. X-rays came back negative, and the Red Sox consider their All-Star third baseman day-to-day. Cora said after Sunday’s game he hopes to have Devers back in the lineup Monday, but that is still to be determined . . . The Red Sox placed Brennan Bernardino on the COVID-related injured list and recalled Murphy from Triple A Worcester. Bernardino will be required to spend at least seven days on the COVID-IL before returning.

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Julian McWilliams can be reached at julian.mcwilliams@globe.com. Follow him @byJulianMack.