ARLINGTON, Texas — What to make of Tanner Houck’s future? Though the righthander has spent the entire season in the rotation, it feels as if that question is no closer to an answer than it was at the start of the year.
On Tuesday against the Rangers, in a 6-4 loss at Globe Life Field, Houck offered a distillation of his season. He weaved in and out of trouble but suffered enough control lapses that he needed 89 pitches to provide just four-plus confusing innings while allowing two runs on three hits.
He received a no-decision — neither good nor bad. The Sox remain convinced he’s capable of more.
“We’re still trying to push him to be great. Stuff-wise, he’s one of the best, not only here but in the league. But we’ve got to make sure we harness that stuff in the strike zone,” said Sox manager Alex Cora. “We’re going to keep pushing him to go out there every five days and give us six innings. It just didn’t happen tonight.”
The Sox are 8-11 in Houck’s 19 starts. His ERA for the season is 4.92. He has pitched at least four innings in every start yet has gone six or more in just five.
He’s shown great attributes that would serve him well in the rotation, particularly if the team shores up the leakiest infield defense in baseball. Houck has a terrific ground-ball rate, the ability to dominate a lineup for a few innings and theoretically could allow him to work efficiently, and an openness to broadening his repertoire.
But the deception generated by the chaos of loose limbs makes it difficult for Houck to funnel his pitches to specific destinations in and out of the strike zone across innings. As a big league starter, that’s made consistency elusive.
Of course, it’s fair to wonder whether the 2023 season — particularly the last six weeks of it — offers a good read on Houck’s potential. After he took a line drive off the face that sidelined him for just over two months, the mere fact that he’s finishing the season on the mound represents a massive achievement and a testament to considerable toughness.
But with Brayan Bello seemingly the only rotation lock for next year (perhaps it makes sense for the Sox to consider a six-man rotation that will include Chris Sale if he’s healthy and proceed without him if and when he is not?), can Houck be relied upon as a starter moving forward? While it can’t be ruled out, an affirmative answer would require a leap of faith.
“I’m still forever evolving, forever getting better,” said Houck. “With that being said, [improvement is] about refining and throwing more strikes and limiting the walks. I’ve definitely continued to work and seen things through the entire way. I feel like my routine’s gotten better and more refined each outing. I’ll just keep showing up and finish strong.”
Houck, prone to roll early and struggle as he works deeper into outings, encountered trouble in a 27-pitch second inning that included a solo homer by Adolis García (his 35th). But trailing 1-0, he escaped a two-on, two-out jam, and the Sox then took advantage of uncharacteristic control struggles by former teammate Nate Eovaldi.
“It’s so fun competing against your friends,” said Houck. “At the same time, definitely want to beat him.”
Eovaldi — whose four-seamer averaged just 94 miles per hour, reminiscent of the diminished arsenal he featured at the end of his Red Sox tenure in 2022 while trying to pitch through a shoulder injury — hit one batter and walked two to load the bases with one out. Justin Turner’s groundout down the third-base line scored one run to tie the game, and Masataka Yoshida followed with a two-run single through the infield to put the Sox ahead, 3-1.
But Houck couldn’t maintain the advantage, undone by the familiar control lapses and a middle-innings wall that he’s rarely surmounted this year. With his pitch count already at 73, Houck opened the fifth by issuing back-to-back walks to the bottom two hitters (Leody Taveras and Evan Carter). Marcus Semien followed with an RBI single to left, bringing Texas within 3-2 and ending Houck’s night after four-plus innings.
Though the Sox emerged from the inning with the advantage, the bullpen buckled under the burden of a 15-out ask. Mauricio Llovera allowed a pair of runs in the sixth to put the Rangers ahead, 4-3. The Sox rallied to tie it in the top of the seventh with an unearned run, keyed by a Bobby Dalbec double.
But Chris Murphy and John Schreiber gave up two runs in the seventh — one on a Josh Jung single, another on Schreiber’s bases-loaded walk of Jonah Heim. From there, the Rangers bullpen closed out the game in dominant fashion. Lefthander Aroldis Chapman (6-4), still throwing 100-m.p.h. sinkers with unhittable movement – struck out three over 1⅔ scoreless innings to earn the win, and José Leclerc pitched a perfect ninth for his third save as the Rangers assured that they would remain at least tied for the final AL wild-card spot.
The Sox fell to 75-77 — 20-42 in games in which their starting pitcher failed to deliver five innings.