PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Monday was ostensibly a good day of work for Red Sox lefthander Eduardo Rodriguez. He pitched two shutout innings against the New York Mets, striking out two without a walk.
He allowed three hits, but all were singles and didn’t cost him. Rodriguez threw 25 of his 41 pitches for strikes, then another 15 more in the bullpen.
But manager Alex Cora shook his head and scowled when asked his opinion of Rodriguez’s outing.
He thought Rodriguez was inefficient, particularly against lefthanded hitting Dominic Smith in the second inning. With two outs, Rodriguez fell behind 3 and 0 then allowed a single to extend the inning.
Smith hit .167 against lefties last season and for his career has hit .143. He’s a platoon player who in a regular-season game wouldn’t have been in the lineup.
That Rodriguez couldn’t put him away is what stuck with Cora.
“For him to go deeper into games, he needs to attack guys,” Cora said. “His stuff is good, he got some swings and misses. But those are the things that we need to get better and he knows it.”
Rodriguez told reporters that he would have preferred to come back out for a third inning instead of finishing up his day in the bullpen. Cora wasn’t interested in that.
“At that point, I’m not going to send him out there to face two hitters,” he said. “He needs to get better. His stuff is really good . . . we have to be more efficient.”
Cora has been an enthusiastic hype man for Rodriguez much of the spring, praising his improved conditioning and the quality of his pitches. But to repeat as American League East champions, the Red Sox have to find avenues of improvement and Rodriguez is one.
The 25-year-old can’t be the little brother of the rotation any more. He’s better than that and it has to start in spring training.
Spring training has been a frustrating time for Rodriguez in the past. He injured his right knee in 2016 and opened the season on the disabled list. Then in 2018, he didn’t make any Grapefruit League starts while recovering from surgery on his knee.
Those injuries, and others, have limited Rodriguez to an average of 22 starts the last three seasons. The Sox want that number to be at least 30.
With Nathan Eovaldi, Rick Porcello, David Price, and Chris Sale being held out of games for another week to further guard against injury following a busy postseason, Rodriguez is the only starter getting in games.
Cora wants him to dominate, not fall behind lefty hitters he should wipe out. He came into camp healthy and in good condition. The results should be there.
“It’s good for him,” Cora said. “Good offseason, everything. Everything is on plan. But obviously he needs that next step. We want him to go deeper into games and with his stuff he can do that whenever he feels like it.
“It’s part of the learning process. He’s old enough. It’s time for him to step up.”
As the Sox ease their other starters into the season, Rodriguez being able to complete six innings would ease the strain on the bullpen, especially with the team starting the season on the road with 11 games in as many days.
That makes getting up to 90-95 pitches in spring training important.
“I feel good. This is the first time I’ve been able to start every game in spring training,” Rodriguez said. “It feels kind of weird because the last few years I’ve been on the side every time. It feels good to be healthy and pitching.”
There were some positive moments on Monday. In the second inning, Rodriguez fielded a ball down the first-base line and made a quick throw to get Tim Tebow.
“I try to be athletic sometimes,” Rodriguez said. “You know how pitchers are.”
The play offered evidence that Rodriguez is clear of the sprained right ankle that landed him on the disabled list last season. Rodriguez is never going to be particularly nimble but he has to be able to defend his position.
Where Rodriguez fits into the rotation hasn’t been determined yet other than Cora and pitching coach Dana LeVangie want to split up their three lefties.
The Sox feel Rodriguez’s style is similar to Price, so they want to avoid using them on consecutive days against the same team. That could mean a rotation of Sale, Porcello, Price, Eovaldi and then Rodriguez to start the season.
The Sox also plan to use a No. 6 starter their first time through. That is likely to be Brian Johnson or Hector Velazquez. “Our goal is for those guys to be at their top when it counts from Day 1,” Cora said. “We want them to stay level, no ups and downs.”