NEW YORK — At the end of June, Eduardo Rodriguez and David Price gave up a total of seven home runs in a pair of starts at Yankee Stadium. That weekend sent Price, in his own words, back to the drawing board, and in a way, it may have done the same for the Red Sox.
The Red Sox skewed heavily lefthanded in their rotation, featuring as many as four southpaws at different points of the season. And the righthanded-heavy Yankees lineup seemed a bad match for such an alignment, particularly at Yankee Stadium.
So with the trade deadline nearing, the idea of adding a righthander with electric stuff became increasingly appealing. In a relatively thin pitching market, a couple of names jumped to the forefront.
“Who do you want?” said pitching coach Dana LeVangie. “You want [Jacob] deGrom? Yeah. But OK, if he’s not available, then you go after the second-best stuff available.
“Nate was the guy. Power stuff, maybe he doesn’t get the swing and misses, but it will sure play against everybody if we just get him to throw the right way. [The Yankees are] a great matchup for him.”
At a time when most everyone expected the Red Sox to reinforce their bullpen, they made the unexpected move for Nate Eovaldi on July 25. The righthander impressed at times in his two months with the Red Sox, forging a 3.33 ERA with 48 strikeouts and 12 walks in 54 innings, and of course he was everything they hoped he’d be against the Yankees, throwing 16 innings without allowing an earned run.
But as good as Eovaldi was against New York in the regular season, he delivered a masterful performance in Game 3 of the Division Series, a 16-1 Red Sox rampage Monday. He allowed one run over seven innings while striking out five, walking none, and allowing just five hits, all singles. He became the first starter since June to pitch at least six innings and allow no extra-base hits against the Yankees in the Bronx.
“That’s why we went out and got this guy,” said LeVangie. “Against a heavy righthanded-dominated lineup, [Eovaldi’s pitch mix] plays perfect.”
Here are some of the elements that allowed Eovaldi to shut down New York:
■ He had the Yankees on the defensive all night. He threw 21 of 26 first-pitch strikes. His fastball was sufficiently overwhelming that he could establish the at-bat by attacking with his heater and then start mixing thereafter.
■ He threw a remarkable 72 of 97 pitches (74 percent) for strikes, just the 15th playoff start of at least five innings since at least 1980 to feature such a high strike percentage.
“He was commanding everything,” said Yankees first baseman Luke Voit. “It’s hard to come back when a guy is consistently throwing strikes or you can’t find a walk.”
■ A pitcher who had used his cutter as his primary pitch at times against the Yankees this year was clearly feeling his fastball from the get-go. He threw his four-seam fastball 47.4 percent of the time (his fifth-highest usage rate this year) and he averaged 98.6 m.p.h with it, his highest average velocity of the year. His fastball topped out at 101, making him the second starting pitcher (along with Noah Syndergaard) to throw a playoff pitch that hard in four years of Statcast tracking data.
■ He was able to attack consistently up in the zone, a contrast to some of the mistakes made by other Red Sox pitchers in the bottom third of the zone, where the Yankees’ on-plane swings can lift the ball.
The combination of Eovaldi’s velocity and that elevated location made it nearly impossible for the Yankees to make solid contact in the air against the righthander’s fastball.
“[It was a] pretty fundamental approach to how we want to do it,” said LeVangie. “[If Giancarlo] Stanton gets a hit through the [third base/shortstop] hole, so what? Single, so what? Keep these guys in the ballpark, we have a really good chance to win the baseball game.”
■ Eovaldi’s cutter continued to be a neutralizing pitch. He threw 30 cutters, 26 for strikes (87 percent). New York’s lineup couldn’t do anything against the pitch, with four swings and misses and six balls in play — all ground outs.
Eovaldi went through a period in August in which the cutter lost its effectiveness. Over a five-start span, he got shelled for a .404 average and 8.05 ERA. And so, after a poor outing on Aug. 31, he changed his position on the pitching rubber, moving a few inches from the extreme third-base side toward the middle.
The changed angles from that point — along with extra rest between outings that restored some of the power to his stuff — helped Eovaldi produce a 1.35 ERA while holding hitters to a .169 average in September. With a cutter that would break late to the outer half against righties and the inner half against lefties, Eovaldi became dominant.
The cutter, said LeVangie, “is violent and velocity-driven. Velocity has a chance to play as long as you can spin something else in the zone.”
Eovaldi was able to do just that. He featured one of the best sliders of his career, getting swings and misses on a starting 8 of 14 (57 percent) of them. With the Yankees playing defense against the fastball, they were vulnerable to the late dive of the slider, resulting in Eovaldi’s ability to get whiffs both in the strike zone and when nowhere close to it.
“Throwing 100 with the kind of movement he’s getting on pitches isn’t fun to hit,” said J.D. Martinez. “Lights out. That was honestly the performance we needed coming in here, and he stepped up and he did it.”
■ Beyond the stuff, Eovaldi’s poise stood out, starting with a critical sequence in the first inning. After he got Andrew McCutchen to ground out on a full-count cutter to open the game, Eovaldi faced Aaron Judge, a mystery left unsolved by the rest of the Red Sox staff in the first two games.
The sequence proved pivotal. Eovaldi jumped ahead, 0-and-2, with a cutter for a called strike, then a 99 m.p.h. swing-and-miss fastball — the first pitch by a Red Sox pitcher in this series in Judge’s cold zone above the strike zone. After two balls, Judge fouled off four straight pitches — three well-located cutters down and away, one well-located fastball up — before the decisive ninth pitch.
Eovaldi missed his spot, delivering a 101 m.p.h. fastball down the middle. Judge was all over it, but his rocket (109 m.p.h. exit velocity) was hit too low to leave the yard. Mookie Betts caught it, and after that, Eovaldi was able to catch his breath and establish the comfort he would maintain for the rest of the night. He closed out the first by punching out Luke Voit on three pitches.
“[Judge] had good swings,” said LeVangie. “He battled. But in a sense, he battled like he was swinging in protect mode. He didn’t know what to look for, what to sit on. We won that at-bat and it carried through the rest of the game, which was really important.
“When [Eovaldi] can establish early and dominate that first inning, he can go on a good run. That’s the biggest thing probably from me.”
Because Eovaldi features premium velocity, there had been a question for years about whether he had the ability to emerge as a front-line starter. To do so, he needed to have the pitch mix to complement the fastball, to prevent opponents from cheating on it. And on Monday night, in the first postseason start of his life, Eovaldi had just that.
“He’s going into free agency,” said LeVangie. “Tonight got him some big money.”
And, oh by the way, it also moved the Red Sox within a game of advancing to the AL Championship Series, with the possibility that Eovaldi could emerge as a significant October force.
“We’re playing a lot more than just this series,” said LeVangie, “and he’s going to help us.”