NEW YORK — When you’re 1-1 and it feels like 0-2, you have to make decisions that will get you out of that malaise. And so Alex Cora made the right one by naming Nathan Eovaldi his Game 3 starter.
In this situation, after your $30 million pitcher couldn’t get out of the second inning and you’re heading to the enemy venue, you have to go with the surest thing you can. Eovaldi isn’t exactly Nolan Ryan or Tom Seaver or Pedro Martinez, but he could act that way Monday night.
He’s the surest thing Cora has right now because of his past success against the Yankees, which includes four very good starts this season — three of them with the Red Sox and one with the Tampa Bay Rays, from whom the Sox acquired him. Why Eovaldi over Rick Porcello, who will pitch Game 4? Cora spun it as Porcello being better off with an extra day after his two-batter relief appearance in Game 1. But while this decision wasn’t an anti-Porcello narrative, it was which of the two gives you the most confidence against the greatest single-season home-run hitting team.
In four starts vs. the Yankees this season, Eovaldi is 1-1 with a 1.93 ERA. He’s allowed just one home run in 23⅓ innings and 87 batters faced.
“It definitely gives me confidence just knowing that I’ve had recent success against them,” Eovaldi said. “I’m trying to do the same thing that I have been doing; stay aggressive and try to get that first-pitch strike out of the way. I’ll be trying to keep the ball in the ballpark. Try and get quick outs. Try not to let the crowd get too crazy and get behind them and get them going. Again, I feel like the key to that is working ahead and staying ahead and not really giving them the free bases and little things like that.”
Eovaldi has employed different strategies against the Yankees in each of his four starts. In his first start vs. the Yankees when he was with Tampa Bay, he threw more sliders (42 percent) than any other pitch to their righties. In his Red Sox debut, he was quite judicious with his four-seamer (25.5 percent) and his cutter (43.1 percent). In his second Red Sox start vs. the Yankees, he threw 49.2 percent four-seamers against the righties. In his final outing, Eovaldi was content to throw a lot of fastballs (64.3 percent).
There had been talk that Eovaldi would be the starter used as a reliever in Game 1 if that was needed, but Cora and pitching coach Dana LeVangie flip-flopped. Eovaldi wasn’t even an option out of the pen. He had to have an inkling, after not being used in relief, that he might be the guy in Game 3.
“I found out [Saturday] night once we had landed that I was going to start Game 3,” said Eovaldi. “A.C. had already told me ahead of time, like prepare as if I’m going to start Game 3 but expect Game 4. Just the fact that we faced the Yankees so many times, if you’re not prepared for them now, you’re in trouble. I feel like I’m prepared for them.”
Eovaldi called what will be his first postseason game “exciting. This is what we play for, coming out of spring training and preparing for this moment. I’m excited, ready to go. It’s definitely probably the most important game I’ve ever pitched in. We need to win and that way we can be ready to go for Game 4.”
Let’s face it, Eovaldi’s 97-100-mile-per-hour fastball has been bothersome to the Yankees’ big righthanded hitters. If Gary Sanchez is waking up and becoming the slugger who has been MIA most of the season, then Eovaldi gives the Red Sox the best chance to overpower him. The same holds true for the other righthanded sluggers — Aaron Judge, the heart, soul, and muscle of the Yankee lineup, and Giancarlo Stanton. The Red Sox have to neutralize those hitters. If they don’t, the Yankees will advance and the Red Sox will go home.
And from a purely selfish point of view, Eovaldi has a chance to make significant money this winter as a free agent. His postseason performances will be a huge selling point for his services and whether the Red Sox want to hold on to him and offer him a deal. Eovaldi has undergone two Tommy John surgeries so he’s been through major injuries.
“I feel like with those injuries, it’s helped me grow a lot as a player, in a lot of different ways as well,” he said. “But to come back and kind of be in this situation again, I’d hurt my arm against the Red Sox, and now I’m on this side of it and back in Yankee Stadium in this situation. I think it’s kind of cool.”
Who knows if the decision will be a complete bust. You could argue that with it being the fifth time around this season, maybe the Yankees might be able to figure him out. And the Red Sox are likely thinking, well, after seeing him four times they weren’t able to figure him out.
All I’m saying is the thinking to go with Eovaldi was sound and based on common sense. The Red Sox need an exclamation point on Monday and this decision just might be it.