BALTIMORE — Eduardo Rodriguez’s first pitch on Thursday afternoon was a fastball well outside the strike zone.
No matter. His Red Sox teammates jumped up in the dugout to applaud, as did the crew out in the bullpen.
It was the first meaningful pitch Rodriguez had thrown since Sept. 29, 2019. The lefthander missed the entire 2020 season after being diagnosed with myocarditis — inflammation of the heart muscle — following a bout with COVID-19.
Baseball was secondary at that point. Rodriguez was a 27-year-old with a wife and two small children. Doctors felt confident Rodriguez would recover, but acknowledged there was little history of myocarditis among professional athletes to back that up.
Had Rodriguez been lost to an elbow or shoulder injury, the medical staff would have known exactly what to do. This was new.
“My first question was how long is this going to take and when will I be available to go back there and be normal,” Rodriguez said.
So Rodriguez going five solid innings and getting the victory will be remembered as one of the best days of a career no longer on hold.
Rodriguez said the first inning brought back memories of his major league debut, and he felt chills throughout his body on a 67-degree day. But he went on to pitch five innings and got the win when the Sox beat the Baltimore Orioles, 7-3.
“Today’s story is not about hitting or defense or whatever. It’s about Eduardo,” manager Alex Cora said. “For him to compete out there and give us five strong innings, that was very gratifying — for the organization, for each individual here.”
Rodriguez allowed three runs on four hits and struck out seven without a walk. He allowed two runs in the first inning, then retired 13 of the final 14 batters he faced.
“It was a special day for us,” said Christian Vázquez, Rodriguez’s catcher and one of his best friends. “It means a lot for us to see our big guy on the mound.”
The Orioles had a 3-2 lead when Rodriguez left the game after throwing 79 pitches. His teammates picked him up with two runs in the sixth. Vázquez scored the go-ahead run.
The bullpen slammed the door from there, Garrett Whitlock, Matt Andriese, and Matt Barnes working four shutout innings and striking out seven.
That the Sox came back to win made it all the better, but Rodriguez was less focused on the results and more on the moment.
“No matter what happened today, I was going to enjoy this game,” he said.
When Rodriguez returned to the clubhouse after his outing, his wife Catherine called him to share his joy. That’s bending the rules a bit, but MLB will give them a pass.
“I told her, ‘Baby, I can’t talk right now because the game is going on,’ ” Rodriguez said. “But she was really happy, and I was happy that she was happy.”
Once the game ended, Cora said a few words to the team in appreciation of Rodriguez, and he received his second round of applause of the day.
Credit to Baltimore first baseman Trey Mancini, too. The game was his first at Camden Yards since returning from colon cancer. As the pandemic sellout of 10,150 saluted Mancini with an extended ovation in the first inning, he turned and acknowledged Rodriguez.
Vázquez then tapped Mancini on the chest with his mitt. A great moment for all involved.
Rodriguez was supposed to start Opening Day, but was pushed back because of arm fatigue. Given the events of last season, the Sox weren’t going to take any chances by pushing him in his start.
Rodriguez has promised Cora he’ll be honest about how he feels. There could be times an extra day between starts makes sense.
“His body is going to let us know,” Cora said.
Emotions aside, Rodriguez getting back on the mound is important for the Sox. They are 47-12 in his starts (including postseason) since 2018, with Rodriguez posting a 33-11 record and 3.83 earned run average.
If Rodriguez can regain the form he showed in 2018, it gives the Sox a far more competitive rotation.
That’s for the coming months to decide. For now, it was enough to see him back on the mound.