In the 211th regular-season start of his big league career, Nate Eovaldi finally earned a long-sought distinction.
On Saturday afternoon, in the first game of a doubleheader split between the Red Sox and Orioles, Eovaldi transformed into “Nine-Inning Nate.” The 32-year-old notched his first complete game, holding the Orioles to three runs (two earned) while scattering seven hits, walking one, and striking out six in a 5-3 victory.
In 11 seasons and 210 starts since his 2011 debut, Eovaldi had never pitched more than eight innings. He’d set foot on the mound in the ninth inning of a start just once – July 26, 2015, with the Yankees – but was pulled after a leadoff double.
Nothing of the sort happened Saturday. Once he rolled through the eighth inning in eight pitches, taking him to 101 , manager Alex Cora viewed the afternoon in simple terms.
“It was his game,” said Cora.
Eovaldi rewarded that trust with a seven-pitch ninth, working around a leadoff single with a 98-mile-per-hour fastball to strike out Ryan Mountcastle, followed by a game-ending double-play for Rougned Odor, setting in motion a handshakes-and-hugs line of honor for Eovaldi.
“Every starter wants to go out there and finish the start,” said Eovaldi. “It definitely means a lot to me, especially with the way the game’s trending now [and] injuries I’ve had in the past.”
To Hall of Fame pitcher and current Orioles analyst Jim Palmer, the performance represented a satisfying throwback.
Palmer came up in an era when nine innings represented part of a pitcher’s routine. His first big league roommate, Hall of Famer Robin Roberts, finished 305 of his 609 starts.
The game is no longer played in remotely that fashion. Five-and-dive starts — five innings, then passing the torch to a reliever relay — represent an aspiration at a time when teams carry 14-man pitching staffs.
“That’s the culture and how everybody gets used,” said Palmer.
And yet, in recent days, even with the ability to carry nine arms in the bullpen, the Red Sox had found themselves running out of options.
“It’s ironic,” Cora observed Saturday morning. “We’ve got 14 [pitchers] and we’re short.”
Eovaldi represented the Sox’ best option for the final three outs.
“It just kind of shows everybody it can be done,” said Palmer.
But how? A few elements coalesced to produced nine:
▪ Eovaldi’s abilities and makeup as a pitcher are the building block. Starters with a two- or three-pitch mix will rarely get a chance to face an opposing lineup more than twice, with hitters getting more comfortable against each offering with increased exposure.
Eovaldi has five pitches — the high-90s fastball, splitter, curve, slider, and cutter. His major league-high 16 homers allowed this year are a testament to his inconsistency with that mix, but Eovaldi’s 3.77 ERA despite those homers demonstrates his ability to adapt to what’s working.
On Saturday, his slider continued its vulnerability to hard contact (he gave up a two-run homer on a slider to Robinson Chirinos that tied the game, 3-3, in the fifth), so Eovaldi leaned on his splitter, curve, and fastball.
”I always say he pitches like you’re playing Wiffle Ball in the driveway. He can make the ball go any way,” said Palmer. “Who better to pitch four times through the order?”
▪ Eovaldi’s work ethic played into the willingness to let him get past a triple-digit workload. He is considered a standout for his between-starts weight room work, part of the reason he’s seen as a steadying source of innings.
”He works so hard,” said Cora. “With the stuff he had, it wasn’t just like, ‘OK, we’re going to throw him out there and see what happens.’ The stuff was really good.”
▪ With a doubleheader, the Sox had to account for 18 innings on one day — with rookie Josh Winckowski slated to make his big league debut in the nightcap. Innings provided by Eovaldi represented greater availability for the relievers in the evening.
“Great timing,” Cora said of the complete game.
▪ The Sox’ unsettled bullpen made Eovaldi even more appealing for the ninth.
Hansel Robles went on the injured list Saturday. The availability of John Schreiber (appearances Thursday and Friday) and Tanner Houck (three innings Wednesday) was uncertain. Matt Strahm struggled on Friday.
Even at 101 pitches entering the ninth, Eovaldi represented the team’s best option — a commentary on both Eovaldi and the bullpen.
“I don’t know how they can do it, to be quite honest,” Palmer said of the Sox’ playoff aspirations with their current bullpen. “And I don’t know how they could do it in October.”
▪ Desire and conviction are needed for a pitcher to record all 27 outs. When he returned to the dugout after the seventh and eighth innings, Eovaldi was not only aware that Cora wasn’t standing on the top step of the dugout to take him out of the game but emboldened by what that meant.
”He was down at the end of the dugout, like, ‘Hey, let’s go,’ ” said Eovaldi. “I was feeding off of that and just staying locked into the game.”
And ultimately, in a game where he was needed, Eovaldi did just that, carrying the mantel of an ace in a way that was recognizable not just in this era but to pitchers from prior ones.
“I’m kind of proud of him that he was able to do it,” said Palmer. “You just don’t see it that often.”