Alex Cora was asked before Tuesday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays what it meant to him as a manager to have Nate Eovaldi on the roster for the last five seasons.
His answer lasted three minutes and probably could have gone longer.
Eovaldi then took the mound in what may have been his final appearance for the Red Sox and threw five strong innings in a 6-0 victory halted by rain in the fifth.
The big righthander is in the last season of the four-year, $68 million contract he agreed to about five weeks after the 2018 World Series.
It was a deal the Red Sox had seemingly little choice but to make. Eovaldi put his career on the line in Game 3, throwing 97 pitches over six innings of relief against the Dodgers.
The Sox lost the game, 3-2, when Max Muncy led off the bottom of the 18th inning with a home run.
Cora still believes, as many from that team fervently do, that Eovaldi’s performance, even in a heartbreaking loss, doomed the Dodgers.
“It’s true. We won the series right there,” Cora said. “No doubt about it.”
In the aftermath of that game, pitchers lined up to tell Cora they wanted the ball. The Sox beat the Dodgers, 9-6, in Game 4 and 5-1 in Game 5 to take the title.
Eovaldi offered to pitch an inning in Game 5. He instead watched as David Price, Joe Kelly, and Chris Sale shut the Dodgers down.
When the Sox celebrated their championship with a duck boat parade, many fans along the route were clamoring for Eovaldi to get a contract.
“It was like a rally for Nate to come back and he did,” Cora said.
Now comes another crossroads. Eovaldi turns 33 in February and what the Sox feel is an acceptable deal may not match his definition.
Eovaldi has a home in Boston and his family has come to love the city. But he’s played on five teams in his career and understands it’s a business.
“I try not to think about it too much,” Eovaldi said last week. “I feel like I can pitch and pitch well for a few more years at least.”
Eovaldi had the option of finishing the season on the injured list with a sore shoulder. But he was activated last week in time to get two more starts.
That was typical of him, wanting the ball. He allowed one earned run over 9 ⅔ innings and on Tuesday hit 96 miles per hour with his fastball.
Eovaldi showed the Sox — and other teams — that his shoulder is fine.
“I felt the fastball was a little bit better today … My curveball, I found it again and was able to finish it,” he said. “Going out there and attacking the zone.”
It was a nice coincidence Eovaldi faced Tampa Bay. The Rays traded him to the Sox on July 25, 2018.
Eovaldi started 10 games down the stretch, helping Cora to have the rotation fully rested for the postseason. Eovaldi won Game 3 of both the Division Series and ALCS then went to the bullpen for the World Series.
“He was consistent from Day 1,” Cora said. “You go back to those playoffs and we pushed him to the limit. He did an amazing job.”
An elbow injury led to Eovaldi going into the bullpen for part of the 2019 season with poor results. But he has 3.78 ERA in 61 starts since and last season finished fourth in the Cy Young Award voting.
“Obviously a guy we really respect. He meant a lot,” Cora said.
That Cora used the past tense in discussing Eovaldi’s career was hard not to notice.
It’s certainly possible a deal could be struck to keep Eovaldi in Boston. But the Sox have a long list of holes to fill and other free agents to make decisions about.
“I’ve been so grateful and thankful for everything the Red Sox have been able to do for me and the fans have been absolutely incredible,” Eovaldi said. “Just a thought that this could be the last one here, but hopefully we can figure something out.”
Cora described Eovaldi as being the same person no matter how he pitches. His work ethic doesn’t change over the highs and lows of the season.
The respect he earned in the World Series only grew over the years.
“For me, a great teammate,” said Xander Bogaerts, who also will have a decision to make. “What Nate did for us was special.”