The count was full against Miami Marlins' Miguel Rojas in the bottom of the fourth inning Tuesday evening. The Marlins had Red Sox starter Tanner Houck on the ropes with two outs because the righthander had walked Matt Joyce and Garrett Cooper.
Rojas had seen everything in what was, at the time, a seven-pitch at-bat. There was no way he could be fooled on the eighth pitch. But Houck sunk his cleats into the dirt in front of the pitcher’s mound, took a deep breath, and delivered a sweeping slider, perhaps his best of the evening, which froze Rojas for the third strike.
“It was definitely big,” Houck said afterward. “In that fourth inning I lost command a little bit, but being able to come back and punch him out there was a big moment.”
In Houck’s major league debut, that was his defining moment. The Red Sox would go on to win, 2-0, and improve to 18-31, but it was Houck who stirred optimism for the club’s future. He did it with his four-seamer, two-seamer, sinker, and dazzling slider. He struck out seven in five innings without allowing a run, giving up two hits and three walks.
And, as the Sox scored in the top of the sixth, he got credit for the win, too.
“This is a moment I look back on for the rest of my life,” Houck said. “As time goes on I’ll get to appreciate it even more.”
Houck’s outing marked the longest scoreless debut by a Red Sox since Eduardo Rodriguez did it in 2015, when he went 7⅔ innings against the Texas Rangers.
“He was composed,” manager Ron Roenicke said. “Command was really good. It was really good to see. He looked calm out there. It was really fun watching him. Great start for him. Great game for us.”
Red Sox finally put a run on the board in the sixth, putting Houck in line for the win, with Jackie Bradley Jr. doubling home Xander Bogaerts.
In the eighth, Rafael Devers doubled and was eventually brought home by a Christian Vazquez single.
Dylan Covey followed Houck and pitched two perfect innings. Ryan Brasier pitched the eighth.
Matt Barnes came on for the ninth. He allowed Brian Anderson’s two-out double but still earned his seventh save by completing the four-hit shutout.
For Houck to get here took an unwavering amount of work and confidence.
“You see where he started from and where he got to, know the work he put into it, the trust you build in that individual to where he sees the changes he needs to make that are going to be beneficial. He’s done it,” said Pawtucket pitching coach Paul Abbott on Monday.
In March, before the COVID-19 shutdown, Houck fell flat in his spring training outing against the Philadelphia Phillies. He lasted just 1⅓ innings, surrendering five earned runs (six total) on four hits and three walks. His weakness against lefties has always been his biggest obstacle. That day was no different. Five of the Phillies hitters were lefties and Houck didn’t retire one until the pitcher, Ranger Suarez, placed down a sacrifice bunt out of the No. 9 spot in the order.
“I obviously struggled a little bit,” Houck said at that time. “It’s not the way you want to go out there and perform. There’s a lot of stuff to take away from it.”
It took family, including his mother, Jennifer, and his sister, Reanna. His mom adopted his sister when she was 4 years old.
“I never forget the day she came into my life,” Houck said. “I was pitching on the junior varsity field as a freshman, and I remember my mom walk up with a stroller and a little girl in there.”
He carried his sister with him to the mound through his Pitch for Adoption charity, something he started before his first full season in the minors. In his start Tuesday, he donated $100 per strikeout to his charity.
The journey to big leagues was always about more than just him. Tuesday’s outing brought it full circle for him.
“The reality is definitely everything I could imagine,” Houck said.