The Red Sox and Cubs provided three intensely competitive games and roughly a month’s worth of story lines. Here are nine takeaways from the weekend series Fenway Park:
■ Eduardo Rodriguez may be close to making the leap. His six-inning, nine-strikeout, one-run performance Sunday — on the heels of a six-inning, no-run, one-hit outing against the Orioles the previous Sunday — was a potential landmark performance.
In the spotlight of a Sunday night, he showed front-of-the-rotation stuff against a team whose 5.1 runs per game rank fifth in the big leagues. He is overpowering hitters in the strike zone with fantastic fastball command complemented by a swing-and-miss changeup.
A few markers of his impressive first five starts: A 2.70 ERA, 12.0 strikeouts per nine innings (fifth in the majors among pitchers with 20 innings), a .185 opponents batting average (10th in MLB, ahead of guys like Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer), and a 25.7 percent swing-and-miss rate on pitches inside the strike zone (third in the majors).
If Rodriguez can improve his pitch efficiency — perhaps with some development of his slider — he has a chance to break out as a front-of-the-rotation pitcher. He is doing a pretty solid David Price impression, writes Scott Lauber of ESPN.com.
■ Rodriguez’s potential for a breakout at age 24 offered reminders of a former Red Sox pitcher whose career took flight at that age. Jon Lester, of course, was back in Fenway over the weekend, and acknowledged via Twitter that the experience of being a visitor to his former home park was foreign, even as he seemed to delight in the reunion.
Admittedly a little weird at first, I can't tell y'all how great it is being back at Fenway, and in the city we called home for so long.— Jon Lester (@JLester34) April 29, 2017
Still, the presence of Lester — during a weekend in which Price pitched off the mound in a two-inning simulated outing — offered a reminder of how a pitcher came of age and learned to thrive in Boston, a notoriously challenging environment.
Rob Bradford of WEEI.com had a fascinating conversation with Lester about the long process required for him to become comfortable dealing with the demands of Boston — while also taking stock of why Price might still be adjusting to the city.
■ Price’s timetable remains a bit hazy, and given that the Red Sox will want at least one more simulated outing at Fenway before he starts a rehab assignment, his best-case scenario is likely a return at the end of May.
Nick Cafardo writes that when and how Price returns could determine the fate of the Sox’ season.
■ Concerns about the absence of a middle-of-the-order power threat may subside for a bit, thanks to Hanley Ramirez. He blasted homers of 469 feet (the longest at Fenway since at least 2015) and 440 feet over the weekend, giving him seven balls in play this year with an exit velocity of 110 m.p.h. or greater — or one more than the rest of the Sox combined.
Ramirez had been hitting the ball well before this weekend, but his resounding contact had been on line drives. Manager John Farrell noted that in 2016, Ramirez was slow to start hitting homers but then started catching the ball at a point where he could drive it with loft to clear fences en route to 30 homers. There are significant indicators that a similar phenomenon is unfolding now.
■ Andrew Benintendi is rapidly emerging as a head-turning talent. He went 4 for 11 with a pair of homers over the weekend — including a 423-foot shot that was his longest as a big leaguer — but this sacrifice fly off his shoetops may have been the most startling thing he did with a bat in his hands.
“That was ridiculous,” said Cubs manager Joe Maddon. “That told me a lot about him. This is scratching the surface. He’s really good. Really good. I heard about him. It takes you about one at-bat to realize how good he is. He’s really good.
“I’m not afraid to say it — that’s Freddy Lynn reincarnated right there. Pretty good comp.”
The fact that Benintendi is a member of the Red Sox instead of the Cubs can be traced in no small part to a three-game sweep that Chicago delivered in Boston in 2014. Here’s my story on how the nadir of a lost season helped to reshape the Red Sox’ future.
■ Koji Uehara gave up three hits and three runs (two earned) Sunday, the second time this year that he’s pitched on back-to-back days. The other time, April 15-16, he also gave up three runs and failed to strike out a batter in the second game, making it fair to wonder why the Cubs turned to him both Saturday and Sunday.
Uehara still has elite deception with his fastball-splitter combination, but at 42, there are clear limits to his frequency of usage. The fact that Tyler Thornburg has been out all year makes Uehara’s departure glaring for the Sox, but the restrictions on his availability also suggest that he’s not a singlehanded solution to a setup role.
■ That said, the lack of depth in the Sox bullpen in front of Craig Kimbrel was on display. With Matt Barnes serving the last game of his four-game suspension Saturday, Farrell extended Steven Wright for one batter too many (Miguel Montero hit a homer to lead off the seventh), then couldn’t find the right buttons to push as his bullpen faltered in a 7-4 loss.
Then on Sunday, Barnes offered a glimpse of stability with a perfect eighth inning that resulted in credit for the win, but that came after Joe Kelly walked two batters and was charged with a run in the seventh.
Barnes, Fernando Abad, and Heath Hembree have all offered promising glimpses, but to this point, none has displayed the sort of dominance to suggest easy passage from the starter to the closer.
■ Maddon talked often Sunday about how his players handled the emotions of the first month of the season.
“I’m really into attempting to understand emotional expenditures,” he said. “I really believe that’s something that people don’t think about enough.”
Former Red Sox outfielder Darnell McDonald was in uniform for Chicago as a mental skills coach; he leads the players in meditation and offers training in mindfulness.
The Cubs have created a fascinating culture (one that accomplished some things that, as you might have heard, no Cubs team had in over a century). And while those accomplishments are foremost a product of the talent, the organization seems to have done an impressive job of creating a culture that permits players to perform at something close to their fullest abilities.
Their attention to the off-field environment will serve as the basis of leaguewide attempts at imitation for years to come.
■ And on the subject of environments: The atmosphere at Fenway surrounding the Cubs-Red Sox series proved strange and fascinating and electric for three days. Dan Shaughnessy talks to some of the principals who tried to make sense of it.