BALTIMORE — With a playoff spot hanging in the balance and just three games left in the season, Eduardo Rodriguez will take the ball for his 31st start of 2021 on Friday against the Nationals. It is an opportunity he does not take for granted.
After all, a year ago at this time, Rodriguez had just been cleared to start the most basic of exercises after months of inactivity following a diagnosis of myocarditis that developed after his COVID-19 infection, a condition that prevented him from pitching a single inning last year.
Entering the offseason, no one knew how prominent a role Rodriguez would be able to play in 2021. Yet he proved capable of taking the ball every five days and delivering the second-largest workload of his career.
“This is amazing just to be able to be here a whole year after everything that happened to me last year,” said Rodriguez. “It just feels different. It feels like freedom. It feels like I can enjoy everything that happened this year, bad and good. That’s how I feel right now.”
The 28-year-old’s performance has been mixed. Rodriguez is 11-8 with one of the highest ERAs (4.93) of any starter. Yet he’s had a career-high strikeout rate (27.4 percent), career-low walk rate (6.8 percent), and underlying batted ball data suggests he’s done a good job of inducing weak contact but the struggling Sox defense has failed to turn balls in play into outs.
“The numbers, good or bad, I don’t care about that right now,” said Rodriguez. “I just feel really good to be available here, especially now that we’re fighting to get into the postseason. I just feel really glad to be healthy.”
Health is not the only thing that Rodriguez has taken time to appreciate this year. The lefthander is eligible for free agency this winter. He and the Red Sox, according to multiple major league sources, had cursory discussions about an extension earlier this year but made no real headway and tabled conversations until the offseason.
Last Sunday, when Rodriguez started against the Yankees at Fenway Park, he took a moment to appreciate his home. The possibility remains that Rodriguez could pitch more games in Boston as a member of the Red Sox — in the playoffs or future years — but he made sure to soak in his surroundings last weekend.
“After that game, I thought a little bit that maybe that was my last start at Fenway Park as a member of the Boston Red Sox. But I only thought for a second about that, because we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” said Rodriguez. “I hope that [Friday] is not the last [start with the Sox]. If it’s the last one, that means the season is over for us. I hope it’s not the last one and hopefully I go another full month, which means we get to the World Series.”
It’s impossible to say how many more games Rodriguez has with the Sox. For now, he’s merely excited that, in his seventh big league season, he’s in position to pitch a game of consequence.
“You earn what you work for. That’s the way I feel,” said Rodriguez. “I’ve been here for a long time now. I feel like I’m prepared for everything every time I go out there, no matter who I’m facing, no matter if it’s Game 7 of the World Series.”
Bobby Dalbec, who was not in Thursday night’s lineup against the Orioles, spent considerable time before the game taking grounders at second base. The development is noteworthy.
The Sox have had José Iglesias as their everyday second baseman this month. But because he joined the organization after Aug. 31, he’s ineligible for the postseason. Christian Arroyo, the only other second baseman on the roster, had four big league plate appearances in the last five weeks entering Thursday and will likely be rusty when he does play.
Meanwhile, the Sox have been dealing with a lineup crunch, rotating three positions (first base, left field, designated hitter) among four productive hitters: Dalbec, J.D. Martinez, Kyle Schwarber, and Alex Verdugo. The crunch will become even more pronounced against the Nationals this weekend, when the Sox will play under National League rules, meaning no DH.
“It’s something that I circled out really early in the season,” said manager Alex Cora. “It’s a tricky one. It’s not perfect … We can be quote-unquote creative in the early part of the game and then make adjustments.”
Perhaps Dalbec at second base could represent part of that creative process. The 26-year-old said that he’s never played second in a game, and identified turning double plays as an unfamiliar demand, but he feels that the position permits him time to react and welcomes the challenge, particularly given that it’s a sign of the team trying to find ways to use him in the most meaningful games of the year.
“It’s awesome, especially with how my season started and continued into the second half. It’s a great feeling to be able to contribute,” said Dalbec. “It’s all hands on deck.”
Another second baseman being discussed by the Red Sox on Thursday? Dustin Pedroia.
No, he’s not coming out of retirement. But multiple members of the Red Sox coaching staff were trying to figure out when the career .299 hitter saw his average drop below .300.
The answer: his second-to-last game, on April 15, 2019, when an 0 for 4 dropped his career average from .2995 to .2993.
Garrett Whitlock threw on flat ground for the third straight day, then stood on a bullpen mound and shadow-pitched (keeping the ball in his glove). He’s expected to throw a bullpen session in Washington on Friday … The Sox have been encouraged by how Ryan Brasier has thrown recently, with restored life on his elevated fastball creating the possibility of high-leverage innings moving forward. “Obviously it’s been a long, rough year,” said Brasier, alluding to the lengthy rehab from a calf strain and concussion. “It’s exciting getting to throw in close games again. That and getting to the playoffs is all I can ask for.” … Major League Baseball announced that first pitch of the American League Wild Card Game will be at 8:08 p.m. on Tuesday.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.