Michael Wacha thought he was ready to pitch for the Red Sox last week. But the team insisted he make a second minor league rehabilitation start just to be sure.
“They wanted me to be able to go six innings,” the righthander explained. “I tried to fight it, but they make the decisions.”
The Sox had it right. In one of the best starts of his career, Wacha came off the injured list and allowed two hits over seven innings on Sunday night as the Sox beat the Yankees, 3-0.
Check the patient, there seems to be a pulse. The Sox, while still in last place in the division, have won three of their last four and are now 4½ games out of a playoff spot with 46 to play.
Center fielder Kiké Hernández is expected to come off the injured list on Tuesday in Pittsburgh and second baseman Trevor Story should make his return before the end of the month.
Is there a chance this gets interesting?
“Most definitely,” Wacha said. “Everyone in this clubhouse believes that we’re still in this thing and we really are. A lot can happen and that’s the mentality that we’ve got, coming out and keep winning series.”
Wacha retired the first 14 Yankees in order on only 47 pitches before Miguel Andujar singled. But Wacha remained focused, allowing only another single. He struck out nine with one walk.
The sellout crowd of 36,581 was invested in the game. The Sox had a 1-0 lead when old friend Andrew Benintendi singled with one out in the sixth inning for the Yankees. That brought fearsome Aaron Judge to the plate.
Wacha struck him out on four pitches, the last a fastball Judge swung through. Then Wacha whiffed Josh Donaldson to end the inning.
The fastball that sent Judge back to the dugout had the fans roaring.
The top five hitters in the Yankees lineup — Benintendi, Judge, Donaldson, Anthony Rizzo, and Gleyber Torres — were 1 for 15 with seven strikeouts against Wacha.
“Really good. Outstanding,” Sox manager Alex Cora said of his starter. “Good fastball, great changeup. In command … To have him back means a lot.”
Sunday was Wacha’s first start against the Yankees this season. Going back to last year while a member of the Tampa Bay Rays, he has held New York to one unearned on six hits in 17 innings over three starts.
That’s something to remember with the Sox having six more games against the Yankees.
“He’s a horse,” said third baseman Rafael Devers, whose two-run homer in the sixth inning gave Wacha some cushion.
Beyond the quality of his pitches, Wacha and catcher Kevin Plawecki worked at a crisp pace, which helped the defense stay alert. The game lasted 2 hours 15 minutes.
That’s usually what it takes to complete five innings when the Sox play the Yankees, especially in a Sunday night game.
“I feel like I work better that way,” Wacha said. “My successful outings are getting back on the mound and in attack mode. They came out swinging early and I was able to make quality pitches and get quick outs.”
The rotation has a different look with Wacha. He’s 7-1 with a 2.44 earned run average in 14 starts this season. Sunday marked only the second time in 44 games that a Sox starter pitched more than six innings.
A starter who can work deep into games makes it easier to win subsequent games as the bullpen is better rested.
Before the game, Cora expressed faith in his team getting back in the playoff race.
“I think math-wise, obviously it looks challenging. But I still believe that we’re going to have one of those big runs,” he said. “We’re going to pitch; we’re going to play good defense.”
Could the Sox pull a reverse of the 2011 collapse and get back into a race that seems lost? The odds are against it. Winning one series, even against the first-place Yankees, doesn’t change how poorly they’ve played over the last six weeks.
“We’re getting healthy and we believe in what we’re doing,” Wacha said. “Let’s see where this goes.”