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Despite the loss to the Orioles, starter Tanner Houck provided the Red Sox a glimmer of hope

After making a strong impression in his three starts last season, Red Sox starting pitcher Tanner Houck seemed to pick up where he left off, throwing five dazzling innings with eight strikeouts in a 4-2 loss to the Orioles.
After making a strong impression in his three starts last season, Red Sox starting pitcher Tanner Houck seemed to pick up where he left off, throwing five dazzling innings with eight strikeouts in a 4-2 loss to the Orioles.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

Red Sox rookie starter Tanner Houck was dominant despite Saturday afternoon’s 4-2 loss to the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park. His eight strikeouts in five innings was reminiscent of the strong impression he made at the end of last year.

The righthander tossed 17 innings, posting a 0.53 ERA and 21 strikeouts in his three starts during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Yet with a crowd on hand at Fenway, even though at just 12 percent of the ballpark’s capacity, this outing had a heartbeat to it.

Houck’s fastball sat in the mid-90s, topping out at 96 miles per hour. He drew 14 swings and misses on his fastball, slider, and splitter. The fastball and slider proved to be his most dominant pitches, drawing an equal number of whiffs (6).

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In the second inning, Houck struck out the side and got Rio Ruiz to swing and miss on three straight sliders.

What makes that pitch in particular so effective?

“Being able to throw for a strike, and also being able to back foot it, bounce it and in the time that I needed, I even threw some back door,” Houck said. “So being able to kind of do things like that attack the zone with off-speed [pitches] is very helpful. It gets [the hitter] off the fastball.”

Houck originally didn’t make the team out of spring training. The club wanted him to get more repetitions at the minor league level and at the alternate training site in Worcester.

But Eduardo Rodriguez’s setback with a “dead-arm” issue opened a spot for Houck. With his recent performances, and the rotation thinned by injury — even though the Sox don’t want to rush him — it would be tough to imagine Houck not cementing his role as a major league starter at some point this year.

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“He was good,” Cora said. “Velocity was up. He had movement on the pitches. Good fastball up in the zone, and he controlled his emotions. He did an amazing job for us.”

Houck had his family in attendance, including his mother and fiancée. Houck’s mother, Jennifer, dutifully keeps a scorebook when her son pitches. Nothing changed Saturday.

“That’s kind of her thing,” Houck said. “So I love having her here. Even at home, she’ll be sitting on her bed, watching the game, and she’ll still do the scorebook. And I typically will go through and correct all our mistakes afterwards, whenever she makes them.”

There weren’t many mistakes to correct during this one.

An awaited debut

Garrett Richards will make his Red Sox debut Sunday afternoon for the final game of this three-game set against the Orioles, something he has looked forward to since signing with the Red Sox in the offseason.

“This is a historic place,” Richards said. “And, you know, I’m anxious to get that first one out of the way. You know, the cold weather obviously is a little bit different from what I’m used to. But you know, guys have found a way to get the job done.”

Richards, a Southern California native, has never played for a major league club on the East Coast. His 10-year career before Boston came with the Los Angeles Angels and San Diego Padres. But he feels like his most recent bullpen will help him adjust to some of the frigid Fenway temperatures.

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“It was cold,” Richards said. But I figured out a way to throw a good bullpen and I’m going to and carry that momentum into tomorrow.”

Richards didn’t have a good spring, registering a 5.93 ERA in 13⅔ innings. Yet the spring, like it is for most veterans, isn’t necessarily a results-oriented exercise but instead a progression to the regular season.

Rodriguez close?

Rodriguez (dead arm) pitched a simulated game Friday. Cora said his velocity was down but that may have been because of the cold weather. Cora said the team wasn’t worried about it, adding that Rodriguez flashed his usual great changeup. They will see how he responds in the coming days before making a decision to take him off the injured list . . . The Red Sox lost back-to-back games to start the season for the first time since 2012 when the club began the season with three straight losses . . . The Sox have scored just two runs through two games. It ties them for their fewest in any season since scoring one run in the first two games of 1976. The last time they scored two runs through two games was also 2012 . . . J.D. Martinez was 3 for 4 Saturday with one run, a double and an RBI. He’s 4 for 8 with 2 doubles through his first two games.


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