Six years ago, Eduardo Rodriguez burst on the major league scene with a single calling card. The lefthander could overpower opponents with an electrifying mid-90s fastball.
At times, that pitch alone allowed Rodriguez to dominate. But in outings when he didn’t have premium velocity, Rodriguez panicked, and would typically try to overthrow and lose his command.
“I was just trying to throw hard,” Rodriguez recalled.
On Sunday, the 28-year-old recognized that his fastball lacked oomph while warming up in the bullpen, and the 34 four-seamers he threw against the Mariners averaged 91.1 miles per hour — his lowest fastball velocity in any start of his career.
But Rodriguez recognized that he had something else at his disposal: Spectacular command of a complete arsenal. Over seven innings, Rodriguez displayed artful precision, dissecting the Mariners in a 5-3 Red Sox victory.
“That’s what aces do,” said manager Alex Cora.
Rodriguez permitted three runs on six hits, yet that line does a disservice to his performance. All but one of the hits came on groundballs — one an infield single, and four almost comically well-placed doubles, marking the first time since April 2019 that any team had as many as four groundball two-baggers. The Mariners either whiffed (eight strikeouts) or made feeble contact against the Sox starter.
For most of the afternoon, Rodriguez — who did not issue a walk — looked like he was playing catch with Christian Vázquez, whose mitt remained stationary on the lion’s share of offerings.
“He’s not throwing 96, 97, 94 (mph) like when he came to the big leagues,” said Vázquez. “But now he looks like he dots everything — high fastballs, cutters backdoor, front door, sinkers.”
That was certainly the case against Seattle. Despite Rodriguez’s pedestrian radar gun readings, the Mariners often proved late when flailing at it by virtue of their need to respect the pitcher’s changeup.
Among his 99 offerings, Rodriguez pulled the ripcord on 36 changeups, getting seven swings-and-misses on both that offering as well as his four-seamer. He also clipped the corner to both sides of the plate with a smattering of cutters and sliders, leaving the Mariners smirking with bemusement.
In some ways, it was an outing reminiscent of ones delivered by former teammate David Price, whom Rodriguez credits (along with Rick Porcello) as one of the key mentors who helped transform him from a thrower to a pitcher. Rodriguez certainly appears to be worthy of the latter designation, even more than was the case during his breakout 2019 season (19-6, 3.81 ERA) and before he missed the 2020 campaign due to a heart condition that arose from a COVID-19 infection.
Rodriguez is 4-0 with a 3.52 ERA, 26 strikeouts, and just two walks in 23 innings. He’s walked no more than one batter in any of his four starts this year, the longest such streak of his career. He’s less reliant than ever on his four-seamer, creating unpredictability that is unbalancing opposing lineups. And with awareness of how his mix plays, Rodriguez is attacking as never before, throwing strikes at a 70 percent rate — a huge jump from his 63 percent prior to 2021.
“He’s one of the best pitchers in the league,” said Vázquez. “No matter what happens, he’s there for us.”
Seattle’s top two hitters, Mitch Haniger and Ty France, opened the game by bouncing grounders through the left side of the infield, both of which rolled through the outfield for doubles and an early 1-0 advantage. Yet Rodriguez shook off the bad luck to retire 12 of the next 13 hitters.
By the time Seattle scraped for two more runs in the fifth, the product of an infield single and a groundball double down each line, the Red Sox had taken a commanding lead thanks to a capsizing Mariners pitching staff.
Entrusted with that 1-0 lead in the first, Seattle starter Nick Margevicius immediately loaded the bases on a Kiké Hernández single and two walks. While the lefthander struck out Xander Bogaerts on a fastball off the plate, Vázquez delivered a one-out RBI single to right to score Hernández.
Margevicius not only proved unable to douse the rally, but instead dumped kerosene on it, forcing in runs with bases-loaded walks to Hunter Renfroe and Marwin Gonzalez. Mariners manager Scott Servais decided he need not see anymore, lifting Margevicius after 32 pitches and just one out recorded.
Reliever Drew Steckenrider offered no immediate reprieve, instead drilling Christian Arroyo in the hand with a fastball to force in a fourth run. Though he escaped the first without further harm, Steckenrider walked two straight Red Sox to open the second, setting the stage for a one-out RBI double by Xander Bogaerts that gave the Red Sox a 5-1 lead.
The Seattle bullpen finished the contest with 6⅔ scoreless innings from there, but Red Sox pitchers made the early rally stand.
After Rodriguez departed, Adam Ottavino delivered a scoreless eighth aided by a beautiful 6-4-3 double play instigated with a glove-hand flip from Marwin Gonzalez — giving Bogaerts a breather from the field for a day — to Arroyo. Barnes then overpowered the Mariners with a perfect ninth (two strikeouts) for his fourth save, as the Red Sox closed out their longest homestand of the year with a modest 5-5 record, but a 2½-game lead in the A.L. East.
“We’re not thrilled, but we’re not upset,” Cora said of the homestand. “We’ll take it. If you asked me before the season would you take this record [14-9] going into [Tuesday’s series against the Mets in] New York, absolutely, 100 percent. Everybody in this clubhouse is happy that we have this record, but at the same time, everybody in this clubhouse knows we’ve got to play better baseball and we have to keep improving.”
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.