ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Eduardo Rodriguez was a 21-year-old prospect with a good arm and a reputation for not being a particularly hard worker when the Red Sox acquired him from the Baltimore Orioles in 2014.
Seven and a half years later, Rodriguez has a World Series ring, a wife and two kids, and the third-most strikeouts by a lefthander in franchise history.
“Everything changes,” he said. “I’m at a better place.”
What Rodriguez does not have is a postseason moment he can call his own.
That could change Thursday night when he faces Tampa Bay in Game 1 of the AL Division Series at Tropicana Field.
After lengthy internal discussions, the Sox decided to go with Rodriguez and use Nick Pivetta out of the bullpen. Chris Sale is lined up for Game 2.
“[Rodriguez] has been throwing the ball well. We think it’s a good matchup,” manager Alex Cora said Wednesday.
Counting a perfect inning of relief Sunday against the Nationals, Rodriguez has a 2.11 earned run average in his last five appearances and held opponents to a .638 OPS.
Rodriguez had made only one prior start in the postseason, Game 4 of the 2018 World Series at Dodger Stadium. He took a two-hit shutout into the sixth inning and allowed an unearned run before Yasiel Puig belted a three-run homer.
Rodriguez watched the ball sail over the fence in left field, then fired his glove into the mound in disgust.
That the Red Sox rallied for 9-6 victory didn’t change manager Alex Cora regretting his decision not to bring Matt Barnes in to face the righthanded-hitting Puig.
“That was three years ago, so it’s just a different year,” Rodriguez said Wednesday. “I feel like I have a lot of experience to be on the mound tomorrow, so I’m just going to get ready and go out there and do my job.”
There are several subplots to this story. Rodriguez missed all of last season recovering from a case of COVID-19 that left him bedridden and with a case of myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle.
It wasn’t until spring training that the Sox knew for certain Rodriguez would be able to continue his career.
“I’m very proud of him,” Cora said. “First thing is first, last year was a very difficult year for him not being able to play because of health issues. And the fact that he will be the starter tomorrow, I know it means a lot to him and his family.”
Rodriguez also will pitch knowing it could be his final game with the Sox. He is eligible for free agency and isn’t certain where that will take him.
A 28-year-old lefty who has proved he can succeed with a large-market team will not lack for opportunities. Rodriguez is 45-19 with a 4.11 ERA since 2018.
“We know his situation, right? This is a free agent year, and we’ll see where it takes us,” Cora said. “We’ll get there when we have to get there. But it’s a guy that represents everything that we ask for in a player.”
When Cora became manager in 2018, he challenged Rodriguez to live up to his talent and become more than an average starter.
There were times when it got tense. But Rodriguez responded to being pushed.
“Do we still jab each other? Yeah, of course,” Cora said. “That’s part of the relationship.”
Cora now sees Rodriguez mentoring young lefty Darwinzon Hernandez and taking more cues from Sale and Nate Eovaldi. At 6 feet 2 inches, 230 pounds, Rodriguez has always been big. But now he’s stronger.
“A more mature person,” Cora said. “He has a different body compared to a few years ago. The way he goes about his business, his preparation between starts, talking to other pitchers . . . just show up, work hard, and do your best out there, and he has done that since I got here.”
Puig’s home run can’t be erased. But if Rodriguez pitches the Sox to a Game 1 victory against the 100-win Rays, he’ll have a postseason performance he can treasure.
“It means a lot because of everything that I went through last year,” Rodriguez said. “I have the opportunity to throw the first game in the ALDS. It feels really good, you know what I mean? It’s just special.”