Nate Eovaldi will be remembered for coming out of the bullpen in Game 3 of the 2018 World Series against the Dodgers and throwing 97 pitches over six innings in a game that finally ended in the 18th inning.
When the Red Sox went on to win the Series, teammates said Eovaldi made it possible by pitching for the third time in four days and saving the bullpen.
What Eovaldi remembers is that he took the loss, giving up the tying run in the 13th inning after the Sox had taken the lead, then allowing a Max Muncy home run leading off the bottom of the 18th.
“I appreciate what everybody says. But it’s weird,” Eovaldi said. “I know what I did was important, but I think about giving up two runs in that game. I still get annoyed about it.”
Eovaldi isn’t complaining. He treasures being part of that team and the gratitude that has flowed his way since. But his legacy has to be something better than a hard-fought loss.
Fortunately, there’s ample time for Eovaldi to make that loss part of the story, and not the main chapter. The 30-year-old righthander is scheduled to start the season opener for the Red Sox Friday night against Baltimore. It’s the first Opening Day assignment of his career.
In a 60-game season, Eovaldi probably will make only 12 or 13 starts. For the Red Sox to overcome what are low expectations, he’ll have to pitch well almost every time out.
“We need innings from Nate, no doubt about it,” pitching coach Dave Bush said, “but the way he’s looked since we came back, I feel good about that. He’s in great shape and the communication has been excellent.”
As manager Ron Roenicke tries to put together a rotation with spare parts, Eovaldi has to be one of the constants.
“Everything we’ve seen has been positive,” Roenicke said. “We need him to be consistent. We all know he’s capable.”
Eovaldi is one of baseball’s most talented pitchers. He throws five pitches effectively, complementing a four-seam fastball that sits at 98 miles per hour with a changeup, curveball, cutter, and slider.
But for all his ability, Eovaldi is 46-54 with a 4.30 earned run average in nine seasons. Injuries, including a second Tommy John surgery in 2016, have limited him to only two seasons of more than 22 starts.
All too often he’s hit hard, or runs up a big pitch count early in games. His peak has yet to be scaled.
“If he is lights-out this season, nobody would be surprised. He has it in him,” said a National League scout. “But you haven’t seen that yet from him. Just flashes.”
Eovaldi may have inadvertently found a key to unlocking his potential in May when he carried a bucket of balls to a batting cage near his home in Texas to throw into a net.
As Eovaldi fiddled with the grip on his cutter, he rediscovered the slider that propelled him to the majors in 2011.
“I had a really good slider when I was in Double A,” Eovaldi said. “But over the years it became more of a curveball and I went away from it. I relied more on other pitches and lost it.”
With Bush’s encouragement, Eovaldi stayed with his slider when the Red Sox reconvened earlier this month. Their hope is he will be able to use it as an out pitch and get through innings more efficiently.
Major league hitters can stay on even the best fastballs, if only to foul them off. A slider breaking down and away to a righthanded hitter can effectively combat that.
Connor Wong, one of the prospects acquired by the Red Sox from the Dodgers in the Mookie Betts trade, caught Eovaldi a few times during the shutdown. His feedback was valuable.
Working to improve has never been an issue for Eovaldi. Going back to Alvin (Texas) High — the same school that produced Nolan Ryan — he had that reputation.
Former teammates Rick Porcello and David Price have both described Eovaldi as “an animal” in the weight room, pushing around so many plates that the other starters were in awe. He regularly squats 405 pounds.
“He takes what he does seriously,” current teammate Ryan Weber said. “There’s meaning behind every single thing he does. He’s taught me to take everything seriously, not just the day you’re out there pitching.
“Nate doesn’t get tired. He goes in there every single day and cranks that weight up. Same with conditioning, he’s all-out all the time.”
Bush has suggested tapering off a bit with the weights and cutting down on how many pitches Eovaldi throws in the bullpen between starts. The Red Sox need consistent innings from Eovaldi, all they can get.
“We talked about this in February at spring training,” Bush said. “He’s a big, strong guy and you don’t want to waste what he can do. If he backs off just a little bit, the feeling is he can be more effective.”
One product of the World Series was a four-year, $68 million extension. Eovaldi, who has played for five organizations since being drafted, liked the idea of setting down some roots.
That has manifested itself in several ways. Eovaldi bought a home in the Boston area so he can be with his wife, Rebekah, and their two children during the season. He also has been more vocal as a team leader.
“It’s easier to speak up when you know you’re going to be around,” Eovaldi said. “I want to be part of us building another great team and getting back to the World Series.”