Tuesday night, for the first time in nearly 19 months, Eduardo Rodriguez took the mound at Fenway Park.
The lefthander had not pitched a home game since the final day of the 2019 season. With a chance for his 20th win, Rodriguez went seven innings against the Orioles and handed a one-run lead to the bullpen.
An unearned run cost him the milestone in a game the Sox came back to win. Rodriguez then missed all of last season recovering from inflammation around his heart caused by COVID-19.
Back on familiar ground Tuesday night, Rodriguez looked like a pitcher who is finally going to get those 20 wins. He pitched into the seventh inning and allowed two runs as the Sox beat the Toronto Blue Jays, 4-2.
Rodriguez is 3-0 with a 3.38 earned run average in three starts. He’s one of the best comeback stories of the season.
“It feels amazing to be back here, to step on the mound and be able to compete,” Rodriguez said. “That feels really good. It was something special.”
Rodriguez is 35-11 with a 3.79 ERA since the start of the 2018 season. When Alex Cora took over as manager before that season, Rodriguez was one of the players he challenged to be better.
That process included occasional public scoldings that Rodriguez didn’t appreciate, and their relationship was frosty at times. But now Rodriguez is a front-of-the-rotation starter who Cora often holds up as an example to others.
It’s never been a question of talent. Rodriguez has one of the best changeups in the game and a fastball that Tuesday topped out at 94.8 miles per hour.
It seemed like it was always foolish little things that would trip him up. Rodriguez was a poor fielder who sometimes forgot to hold runners. Or he’d ruin a potentially quick inning with a walk and then trouble would start.
Now you see the focus that allows a pitcher to win 20 games or throw 200-plus innings, which Rodriguez did for the first time in 2019 and very badly wants to accomplish again.
The Red Sox scored four runs in the fourth inning Tuesday, sending eight batters to the plate. Rodriguez came back out for the fifth and recorded three outs on 14 pitches to get his teammates back to the bat rack.
Rodriguez pitched like that all game, working fast and getting ahead. He has two walks in 16 innings this season.
That kind of crisp tempo was never part of his game until the second half of the ’19 season. Pitching coach Dave Bush has made that a priority for all of the staff this season.
Baseball, as we all know, can plod along. But when the starting pitcher sets the pace and controls the flow of the game, his teammates almost invariably benefit.
“It benefits all of us,” Cora said. “It’s something that is very important. His stuff is that good. You have to give him credit, his stuff is that good. He’s evolved into one of the best lefties in the league.
“He attacks the zone with good stuff and the tempo is magnificent. He has a good feel of what he wants to do.”
Cora pushed Rodriguez a bit, sending him out for the seventh inning having already thrown 88 pitches. Randal Grichuk led off with a home run and Cora came out to get his starter.
The knowledgeable crowd of 4,728 gave Rodriguez an ovation as he came back to the dugout. This time, the bullpen held on.
“Every time I go out there, I just enjoy what I do, every pitch that I throw,” Rodriguez said.
That Rodriguez worked deep into the game and maintained his velocity was important. He’s the only pitcher to miss a full season after a COVID-related illness and the training staff is closely monitoring his conditioning and energy.
Rodriguez has promised them he’ll be honest. Through three starts, it’s all positive.
The Sox have won 42 of the 50 games Rodriguez has started since 2019, including 17 of the last 20. As Chris Sale recovers from Tommy John surgery, Eddie’s their ace.
“It’s been pretty nice to see,” said Xander Bogaerts, whose three-run home in the fourth inning gave Rodriguez all the support he needed. “We’re enjoying the moment and hopefully we can continue it for a long time.”