All eyes were on Eduardo Rodríguez toward the end of the 2019 season.
The Red Sox were out of contention, but Rodríguez had just come off a stellar performance against the Phillies Sept. 14. He tossed 6⅔ innings, allowing just four hits and a run while matching a season high in strikeouts with 12.
The Sox won, 2-1, but Rodríguez got a no-decision, leaving him on 17 wins with three more starts to get to 20.
No Red Sox pitcher had reached 20 wins since Rick Porcello collected 22 during his 2016 Cy Young campaign.
Had Rodríguez reached 20 wins, it would have been an amazing feat. Yet he saw things a bit differently.
“I’m thinking of 200 innings, and if 20 wins happens, it happens,” Rodríguez said at the time.
As Rodríguez begins his comeback this spring after missing the 2020 season with COVID-19 and myocarditis, it’s hard not to think back to two seasons ago.
The lefthander reached his goal that year, tossing a career-high 203⅓ innings. He was tied for first in the majors in games started with 34 (though he fell short of 20 wins, finishing 19-6).
The 200-plus innings represented a muscle flex of sorts for Rodríguez. They signifed workhorse and dependability, two words that weren’t attached to him up until that point.
But now, after dealing with a virus that took a toll, it remains to be seen just how durable Rodríguez is.
“The way he reacts is going to let us know how much we give him or if we have to slow him down,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said Friday.
Rodríguez says he is 100 percent and taking the same mentality into this season that he had in 2019: He wants to be a workhorse who can make 34 starts.
“That’s what I was working on this offseason,” Rodríguez said. “I’ve been working on getting my body right, being able to pitch 34 starts. I feel in that position right now. I feel stronger. I feel better.”
The aftermath of COVID is different for each person. Celtics star Jayson Tatum, who contracted the virus recently, said he sometimes still feels fatigue running up and down the court. Even though baseball is more of a stagnant sport, pitching can be likened to a sprint, with each ounce of energy going into one pitch.
Rodríguez felt that fatigue during a bullpen session last season before the Red Sox decided to shut him down. He spent the offseason working to get his wind back, and after three months of rest, he is confident the ill effects of the virus are behind him.
“I was working hard and running hard,” he reiterated. “I feel 100 percent. I will say everything is going to be fine.”
“He went through the whole process last year, and he got clearance to do everything,” Cora said. “He’s in a good spot. But as always, you know, we prepare him for 162 games.”
If healthy, Rodriguez likely will be the Opening Day starter. But his goal is still to take the ball every fifth day no matter where he is in the rotation. He believes the Red Sox can be a really good team that makes a postseason push despite the roster turnover and new faces on the pitching staff.
“I’ve been out there the last two days, and I’ve been looking at all the pitchers we have; we look really good,” he said. “We’re going to show everybody when the lights get on. We’re going to show everybody what we got.”
Rodríguez will be a big part of what the pitching staff has.
In the past, Cora knew how to push Rodríguez. In 2019, he threw 100-plus pitches in 22 of his 34 starts. Yet this season is a different reality, and it will gain more definition as the season inches closer.
“So far, so good,” Cora said. “It’s been two days with no issues and I’m happy for him.”