DETROIT — Fans have returned to the ballparks and it has become rare to see a player, coach, or manager wearing a mask in the dugout.
Going to a game or watching on television feels normal again.
But the threat of COVID-19 still hovers over baseball.
The Brewers are the latest team dealing with an outbreak that has kept, among others, Josh Hader and Christian Yelich out of games in recent days.
Newly acquired Trea Turner can’t join the Dodgers until he’s cleared, and Marlins manager Don Mattingly is away from his club until he tests negative.
The Red Sox had their latest scare on Tuesday when Matt Barnes was off the roster because he didn’t feel well and spent a day on the injured list and in seclusion waiting for the results of a test.
Those are the effects of the pandemic that we can see. Eduardo Rodriguez reminds us of those we can’t.
Rodriguez pitched five shutout innings and struck out 10 Detroit Tigers on Wednesday night, helping the Red Sox to a much-needed 4-1 victory while evoking memories of his potential to positively influence a pennant race.
“It was huge,” said Barnes, who locked down a game that saw five Sox pitchers strike out 18. “Eddie went out there and does what he does.”
Rodriguez missed last season after contracting COVID-19 in July. He initially thought he had recovered only to learn the virus caused myocarditis, inflammation of the muscle around his heart.
Forget pitching, Rodriguez was ordered to stay on the couch at his home in Florida. His first “workout” was a walk around the block.
He was pronounced healthy in spring training and has made all but one start since. But Rodriguez had a 5.60 earned run average before he took care of the Tigers.
Through Tuesday there were 68 pitchers in the majors with at least 99 innings. Rodriguez had the fifth-highest ERA. Even the tortured ghost of Garrett Richards was lower.
This from a pitcher who was 19-6 with a 3.81 earned run average in 2019 and finished sixth in the Cy Young Award voting.
How much did the events of last season affect Rodriguez? Nobody can say for sure. There is ample data on pitchers coming back from elbow, shoulder, and leg injuries but nothing on myocarditis other than what Rodriguez could tell them.
Rodriguez’s ERA was an unseemly 6.21 ERA in mid-June. He went 2-1 with a 2.83 ERA in the five games that followed, striking out 34 over 28⅔ innings.
But Rodriguez left his July 23 start against the Yankees in the second inning with a migraine headache and pitched poorly six days later.
Rodriguez said he was “out of my head” during that abbreviated start against the Yankees and still not himself in the next game.
That made Wednesday a big test and he passed.
As the Red Sox look for five starters who can get them to the postseason, Rodriguez raised his hand.
Cora sees a pitcher who is healthy and can make in-game adjustments. Rodriguez got 12 swing-and-misses with his four-seam fastball.
“He went after them,” Cora said.
Rodriguez feels lucky that he won five of his first six starts and that the season fell into a grind afterward. He felt better over time but was making uncharacteristic mistakes.
But if you’re willing to excuse those two games affected by the migraine, Rodriguez has been solid in recent weeks.
“Now I have the opportunity to be back and thank God I’ve been healthy the whole year and pitching every five days,” he said. “We’ve got to go out there and win every game and I want to be part of it.”
Rodriguez will be a free agent after the season, which also adds a layer of pressure. Instead of 2019 being a launching pad to a lifetime of security for his family, there are now questions.
But there are 53 games remaining, a chance to leave a better and lasting impression.
“He understands how important he is. Not only for the rotation but the whole team,” Cora said. “It’s good to see him go out and compete the way he did tonight and hopefully it’s the beginning of something great.”