Icy dread spread quickly through the visitor’s dugout at Target Field on Tuesday afternoon.
Red Sox starter Martín Pérez had recorded just one out through 21 pitches in the bottom of the first inning. He’d already allowed a double, walked two, and hit a Twins batter.
While the Red Sox trailed, 1-0, the game seemed in danger of quickly getting out of hand. A disastrous possibility, given that the Red Sox will navigate a doubleheader Wednesday.
“It didn’t look too promising,” acknowledged manager Alex Cora.
In 2020, the sense of foreboding from such a start almost inevitably translated to a lopsided loss, often in a fashion that decimated the Red Sox pitching staff in a way that carried into subsequent games. Losing streaks mounted on the basis of one disastrous start after another.
But on Tuesday, the Red Sox took another step to distance themselves from last year’s abomination. Pérez allowed a run-scoring ground out as the Red Sox fell behind, 2-0, but escaped the first inning without further damage.
Then, he went to work behind the scenes. Pérez reviewed video of the flawed mechanics that contributed to his loss of the strike zone, and also abandoned his long-sleeve undershirt in favor of short sleeves in the snow.
“I felt too tight in the first inning. I didn’t feel loose,” explained the pitcher. “I just told myself, ‘I have to be me. I’ve got to go out there and do my job.’ … I was able to throw a good game after that.”
When he returned to the mound for the second, the lefthander seemed transformed. He spun four more scoreless innings — finishing his afternoon with a five-inning, two-run yield in which he worked around nine baserunners (four hits, three walks, and two hit batters) — to buy time for his team’s offense to awaken in an eventual 4-2 victory, the seventh straight win for the first-place Red Sox.
The common denominator in those seven victories? Competence in the rotation.
In 2020, gutted by the decision to trade David Price and the season-long absences of Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez, the Sox rotation had just 25 starts of five or more innings, third-fewest in the majors.
When that modest bar was cleared last year, the team performed well, going 16-9 (.640). Otherwise, theywere a well-nigh hopeless 8-27 (.229).
This year, the Red Sox have gotten starts of five or more innings in nine of their 10 games — the most in the American League. That includes a run of seven straight that perfectly overlaps the team’s winning streak.
No member of the starting quintet of Pérez, Nick Pivetta, Garrett Richards, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Nate Eovaldi has ever been named to an All-Star Game. The group won’t be confused for the starting staffs of the Dodgers or Padres.
But the last seven games, the Sox rotation has a 3.55 ERA with 37 strikeouts and 18 walks in 38 innings. That solid performance has featured one brilliant outing by Eovaldi against the Rays (7 innings, 1 run) last week, as well as a steady array of effective outings. The regular solid efforts represent a marked departure from what transpired last year when the team set a record for the worst rotation ERA in club history.
“We’ve got a good mentality,” said Pérez. “We don’t have big names here, but this is what we’ve got and we’re just doing our job. It doesn’t matter who’s pitching.”
The provision of solid performances has, in turn, helped to organize the rest of the pitching staff. Cora has been able to deploy the bullpen using his best relievers — most notably Matt Barnes, who has six no-hit innings with 12 strikeouts after his perfect ninth Tuesday — in the highest-leverage moments rather than burning them in lopsided games.
Meanwhile, the rotation keeping small deficits from mushrooming into blowouts has permitted the lineup time to mount comebacks. The team already has five comeback victories, half as many as it had in the entire 2020 season.
“[The performance of the rotation is] very important because offensively, we believe that we are pretty solid. We can score runs,” said Cora. “It’s just about giving us a chance to get the offense going.”
Overall, the team’s steady march through the past week-plus is a reflection of a rotation whose performance has served as a metronome. The development offers a dramatic contrast to what transpired a year ago, and serves as part of the reason why the early season has stoked rather than extinguished optimism about the team.