When Josh Winckowski made the Red Sox’ season-opening roster, there appeared a reasonable chance he would do so merely as a placeholder on the pitching staff.
Garrett Whitlock, Brayan Bello, and James Paxton are potentially in line to rejoin the team this month. With their anticipated returns, Winckowski seemed like a multi-inning option to start the year who would then head into the Triple A rotation if and when the trio of rehabbing pitchers joined the club.
That thinking may be shifting. Winckowski has been among the most impressive pitchers on the Sox staff, allowing one run over six innings in three relief appearances. He’s attacked the strike zone (six strikeouts, one walk), avoided hard contact, and shown the ability to handle varying appearance lengths, with outings of one, two, and three innings.
As a rookie last season, Winckowski took his lumps, forging a 5.89 ERA in 70⅓ innings with one of the lowest strikeout rates (13.9 percent) in the big leagues. He worked to sharpen his mix in the offseason, shaping his cutter to more effectively dart on the hands of lefties and his slider to miss bats. While throwing out of the bullpen, he’s also featured an early uptick in velocity, averaging 95.2 miles per hour on his sinker, up from 94 last year.
“It’s obviously a smaller sample size, but so far, pretty happy with it. I feel like I’ve been executing and hitting better locations so far this year compared to last year,” said Winckowski. “Every pitch has gotten a little bit sharper and then just filling up the zone with strike one, I’ve been ahead a lot early on, and that obviously helps a ton and opens up the pitch-calling.”
The combination of stuff and strike-throwing has commanded the attention of the Sox. So, too, have the conversations between Winckowski and Whitlock — whose multi-innings bullpen role had a huge impact on the Red Sox in 2021.
“[Whitlock] has been huge for [Winckowski], kind of walking through the process and talking to him about how to attack hitters, routines, the role,” said manager Alex Cora. “That’s how Garrett started in ‘21 and you saw what happened. Hopefully that happens [with Winckowski], too.
“[Winckowski’s] stuff is a lot better compared to last year. He understands who he is and what he needs to do. With all that, he’s striking out people, which is different from last year.”
Trio working way back
Righthander Bello — who was shut down briefly in February with elbow soreness — made his fourth game appearance in his buildup toward the season, throwing five innings and 72 pitches in an extended spring training game in Fort Myers, Fla. He’s expected to get at least one more rehab start next week, but could become an option for the big league rotation by the middle of the month.
Righthander Whitlock will start for Double A Portland on Thursday in what the Red Sox expect to be his final tuneup before joining the rotation next week in Tampa, likely on Tuesday. Lefthander Paxton, who threw three innings on Tuesday in Fort Myers, is scheduled to make his next rehab start on Sunday against Triple A Buffalo, should weather permit — a matter not taken for granted after Worcester’s games were postponed Tuesday and Wednesday. Paxton, who was slowed by a hamstring strain in spring training, has made a pair of starts in extended spring training, working two and three innings.
No theft protection
The Pirates executed an uncontested double-steal in the ninth inning of Wednesday’s 4-1 win at Fenway Park with reliever Zack Kelly on the mound. Through six games, opponents are 14 for 14 in stolen base attempts against the Red Sox.
The Sox are the first team since the 1987 Expos to allow 14 steals while failing to catch a thief through six games. All 14 steals have occurred with Reese McGuire behind the plate.
“Obviously the running game, we’ve got to do a better job,” said Cora.
Slow start bad omen?
The Red Sox have made the playoffs just three times when carrying a sub-.500 record after a half-dozen games — most recently in 2009. The Red Sox, of course, downplayed any broader significance of a lackluster record after two series.
“I guess we got off to a good start in the first few and these last few games didn’t go the way we would have liked them to. I don’t think anybody would disagree with that,” pitcher Corey Kluber said after the Pirates’ sweep. “The one good thing about baseball is we have an opportunity tomorrow to come and right the ship and put these three behind us. Nothing that happened the last three days has any effect on the way we’re able to play the game tomorrow.”
Story staying put
Shortstop Trevor Story will stay in Boston to continue his rehab during the team’s road trip. Three months removed from the placement of an internal brace on his throwing elbow, Story recently began picking up a plyo ball as he moves closer to a throwing program … The Sox will be staying outside of the city during their three-game, four-day series in Detroit. Cora suggested the team might try to take advantage of the 30- to 40-minute commute. “[Bench coach Ramón Vázquez] was saying we’re going to have our advance meeting on the bus [Thursday],” said Cora. “I want to see that happen.”