Garrett Whitlock overpowered the Yankees in the ninth inning of Sunday night’s 3-0 Red Sox victory.
The combination of 96-98 mile per hour sinkers, diving changeups, and sweeping sliders made quick work of the top of New York’s lineup, with Whitlock striking out Andrew Benintendi and Aaron Judge (a slider on the ninth pitch of his at-bat) before eliciting a weak grounder from Josh Donaldson to end it.
“This is the version of Garrett we want on the mound,” said Sox pitching coach Dave Bush. “This is the guy that dominates, the version we saw last year. We’re seeing it again right now.”
Yet that scene of dominance stood in contrast to what followed. As is frequently the case after games, Whitlock marched through the Red Sox clubhouse with the slow, blocky gait of a zombie.
“Cold tub,” said Whitlock. “I’m freezing.”
The Iceman Cometh?
“Nah, nothing like that,” Whitlock said.
Whitlock expressed little interest in such a moniker, perhaps for the best, given the inescapable despair in Eugene O’Neill’s play. But nickname or not, there’s little question that the right hip inflammation that resulted in an injured-list stint for five weeks in June and July remains something with which he contends.
The trainer’s room and cold tub are just part of the work that’s gone into Whitlock’s return to the mound. His delivery relies heavily on the strength of his back leg. His release point is more than 7 feet in front of the rubber, placing him among the top handful of pitchers in average extension. To land near the bottom of the mound, he relies heavily on the ability to push off the rubber using his back leg and hip.
It’s little surprise, then, that the hip injury took away the power and sharpness of Whitlock’s stuff. In June, while Whitlock was still in the rotation, his sinker dipped from an average of 95-plus in the first two months of the year to just over 94. The swings-and-misses that came in handfuls at the start of the year dwindled.
“He just wasn’t feeling good,” said Bush. “The hip’s a big one. When your back hip is hurting, you’re going to be compromising some part of your delivery.”
Once the pain in Whitlock’s hip subsided, he worked with Bush and bullpen coach Kevin Walker to strengthen his back leg and stabilize it in his delivery. His work includes getting tied to bungee cords in the bullpen as part of resistance exercises to gain greater strength and power as he works into his delivery.
The result? Whitlock’s velocity this month — 96.3 on his sinker — is the highest it’s been in any month of his big league career. In 17⅔ innings since coming off the injured list, he has a 1.53 ERA while holding hitters to a meager .133/.161/.233 line — an improvement over his season marks of 2.98 and .211/.253/.346.
“I’m sure it still hurts. I know it still hurts,” said Bush. “But we told him to be honest with us about the days when he thinks he can go and when he can’t.
“It’s something that’s probably not going to go away till the end of the year. The goal when he came off the IL was to get him to a spot where he could pitch through it and manage it.”
That management will be evident in the coming days. Typically, the Sox try to give Whitlock at least two days off after a multi-inning outing. But his appearance Sunday came with just one day of rest after a pair of scoreless innings against the Yankees Friday. Accordingly, manager Alex Cora said Whitlock, following Monday’s off day, is likely unavailable both Tuesday and Wednesday in Pittsburgh.
Whitlock suggested that he feels healthy enough to contribute as the Sox see fit. He downplayed any concern about lingering discomfort in his hip, instead outlining areas in which he wants to improve.
“I feel good, but obviously I want to be better,” said Whitlock. “I want to sharpen up my changeup a little bit more. I want to sharpen up my slider a little bit more. And then my arm-side fastball, I need to start commanding that with righties at the plate, not just lefties.”
Yet while the righthander sees ways to get better, the Sox see his recent performance as having significance to their evolving bullpen mix.
The Sox failed in their efforts to add to the bullpen at the trade deadline, instead dealing away lefty Jake Diekman. Without him, and with Tanner Houck sidelined by a back injury, the importance of Whitlock has only grown.
Whitlock and John Schreiber have been alternating as late multi-innings options. Ryan Brasier has altered his mix, cutting back on his use of his four-seamer to lean heavily on 97 m.p.h. sinkers and sliders.
Matt Barnes, in his last two appearances, showed his best fastball in more than a year — dramatically evident when Anthony Rizzo swung under a 96 m.p.h. fastball at the top of the zone Friday — to turn his curveball into more of a weapon.
“[The Rizzo at-bat] was probably the first time that I was like, ‘I can let this thing eat and it’s got the carry and the ride to where I want it to be,’ ” said Barnes. “I think we all had a good idea that eventually it was going to come back.
“I was hoping it wasn’t six [expletive] months, five months, however long it’s been. But it’s nice going out there and knowing that I have my stuff that I’ve had for my career. It makes life a lot easier.”
In winning three of their last four games, the Sox have seen a flicker of relief hope. With a returning-to-normal rotation working deeper into games, the bullpen allowed one run in 12⅓ innings while striking out 17 against the Orioles and Yankees.
In that, the Sox see promise. Though they rank second in the big leagues with 23 blown saves and their 4.38 bullpen ERA is the sixth worst, the Sox see a potential path forward as they try to reassert themselves in the wild-card hunt — with Whitlock showing the stuff to be an anchor.
“All those pieces are kind of stabilizing the bullpen,” said Bush. “I’m sure it’s going to evolve some more between now and the end of the year, as it always does.”