WASHINGTON, D.C. — And now, for something completely different.
With their lineup squeezed by the absence of a designated hitter in a National League park, the Red Sox unveiled a new outfield alignment on Friday night. Against Nationals lefty Josh Rogers, the team inserted Bobby Dalbec at first base with Kyle Schwarber in left, Hunter Renfroe in center, and J.D. Martinez in right. Kiké Hernández started at second base for the first time since Sept. 12.
In moving Hernández out of the outfield, the Red Sox made a calculated decision to try to jumpstart a struggling offense that had scored three or fewer runs in five of the previous six games. The first-of-its-kind outfield alignment of Schwarber, Renfroe, and Martinez represented the team’s deepest group of power-hitting options against southpaws, even if doing so came at the expense of their better alignments.
“We’re going with the big boys in the outfield. … The hope is for the offense to wake up. That’s the most important thing,” said manager Alex Cora before the 4-2 win. “[We’re] trying to get, I’ll put it this way, instant offense. I think it’s the best offensive alignment that we can put, obviously, in the outfield. It’s not the rangiest outfield but they make plays.”
The experiment in Nationals Park did not come without peril. According to Red Sox analyst Greg Rybarczyk, the outfield in Washington features roughly 92,100 square feet — comparable to Tropicana Field, slightly larger than Yankee Stadium, and significantly larger than Camden Yards (90,100) or Fenway — which features the least outfield ground in the majors at 87,000 square feet.
But the realignment worked for the Sox, who took a 4-2 victory over the Nationals, with Renfroe and Dalbec connecting for home runs.
The Schwarber-Renfroe-Martinez tandem represented the 32nd starting outfield alignment employed this year by the Red Sox. The most frequent combination, of course, has been Alex Verdugo in left, Hernández in center, and Renfroe in right — a pairing that has been employed 51 times. Two other pairings have been used 15 times: Martinez in left, Verdugo in center, and Renfroe in right; and Franchy Cordero in left, Verdugo in center, and Renfroe in right.
Taylor unlikely to return
Josh Taylor, who landed on the injured list with a lower back strain last Sunday (retroactive to Sept. 23), is unlikely to be able to return to the Red Sox bullpen during the final weekend of the series. He traveled to Washington from Boston to rejoin the Sox, but he has yet to resume throwing.
“As of now, I don’t see it,” Cora said of a potential return for Taylor (1-0, 3.40, 60 strikeouts in 47⅔ innings) this weekend.
Garrett Whitlock (8-4, 1.99 ERA in 72⅓ innings) threw off the bullpen mound on Friday for the first time since his pectoral strain on Sept. 19.
“Felt good. I’m pleased with it,” said the righthander. Cora said that Whitlock is likely to be activated either Saturday or Sunday.
The Sox remained undecided on a Saturday starter as of the conclusion of Friday’s game. But righthander Tanner Houck, who has spent the last two weeks in the bullpen, said that he’d welcome the ball in that or any other role.
“It’s all hands on deck right now, no matter if it’s starting, relieving, pinch hitting,” said Houck (1-5, 3.80, 79 strikeouts in 64 innings). “I’m ready for anything. I’m not scared to step up and fill any role that I’m called upon to do. There’s no panic for me.”
Chris Sale (5-1, 2.90) is scheduled to start on Sunday, leaving Nate Eovaldi available if the Sox play beyond Sunday’s scheduled season finale — whether for a Game 163 or a Wild Card Game if either scenario comes to fruition.
Eduardo Rodriguez, after his five-plus shutout innings Friday, said he would be ready to throw an inning of relief on Sunday and that he could take the ball for a longer outing as soon as Monday.
Pivetta takes stock
While the final start of Nick Pivetta’s season did not go as hoped — he allowed three runs in 4⅔ innings against the Orioles in a loss on Thursday night — the 28-year-old expressed satisfaction in his overall body of work in the Sox rotation this year. He made 30 starts, contributed 154 innings, and went 9-8 with a 4.56 ERA (a mark that was inflated by the Red Sox’ defensive struggles this year) and 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings.
Considering that Pivetta had bounced between the rotation and bullpen in 2019 and 2020 before his trade to the Red Sox, and that he’d thrown just 15⅔ innings in the big leagues last year, he views the 2021 season as one that re-established his bona fides as a starter moving forward while also highlighting areas for future improvement, particularly with his control after walking 3.8 batters per nine innings.
“I’m happy with the progression that I made,” said Pivetta. “I think there’s a lot that I’m more capable of and I hold myself to a very high standard. … But [staying healthy for a full season] is a very good feat. It shows that I’m still a viable starting pitcher in the big leagues, and I have a lot more potential ahead of me to build off of my year I just had. I’m very grateful for every moment.”
In select company
Matt Barnes, in a scoreless inning of work on Thursday, made his 384th career appearance with the Red Sox, passing Roger Clemens and moving into a tie with Derek Lowe for fifth-most appearances by a pitcher in Red Sox franchise history. Barnes passed Lowe on Friday, though he gave up a solo homer in the seventh … Kyle Schwarber, who played 72 games for the Nationals this year before landing on the injured list and then getting traded, received a tribute video prior to the game. Schwarber hit .253/.340/.570 with 25 homers with Washington before being dealt to the Red Sox for righthander Aldo Ramirez on July 29.