FORT MYERS, Fla. — Eduardo Rodriguez understands that 200 innings now means something different than it did five, 10, or 20 years ago. That plateau once represented a baseline expectation for a starter. Now, it is a mark achieved only by the elite, with 13 pitchers hitting that number in 2018.
Rodriguez wasn’t one of them, and he wasn’t particularly close. A severe ankle injury just before the All-Star break sidelined him for seven weeks and limited the lefthander to 129⅔ innings. But Rodriguez is looking not for an incremental improvement in his reliability, but rather a leap forward.
“I want to be in that special group,” Rodriguez said. “I want to throw 200 innings.”
But Rodriguez won’t get close to 200 innings unless he becomes more pitch efficient, a point manager Alex Cora made this past week. In his start against the Mets on Saturday, Rodriguez showed that he’d taken the message to heart.
The lefthander blitzed through the first two innings in just 15 pitches (13 strikes) and largely carved the Mets over four innings. He allowed one run on three hits (all singles) and a walk, striking out three, and he threw 34 of 52 pitches (65 percent) for strikes. Cora was delighted by how Rodriguez responded to the challenge to improve his efficiency.
“He’s a great pitcher, he’s got great stuff, and I want him to be great,” said Cora. “[Saturday was] a step toward what we want.”
Rodriguez believes that it is not the last one. He said that he’s been focused in his recent work on getting ahead in the count, and that if he can do so, his healthy entry into 2019 — a contrast to past springs when knee issues impaired him — gives him a chance to chase elite standards.
“I feel really healthy, really good. That’s what’s changing my mind-set. The last three years I’ve been injured or thinking about getting my knee back,” said Rodriguez, who has allowed three runs with eight strikeouts and two walks in eight spring innings. “The last spring I was really healthy was 2015, when I got to the big leagues. The opportunity to be like that this year is something special.”
Job well done
Cora had high praise for catcher Christian Vazquez. The manager said he’s been told by longtime organization members that Vazquez is having “probably his best camp, big leagues or minor leagues. He’s in-tune with everything. He’s engaged in every drill.”
Cora acknowledged that in the first half of 2018, the team was frustrated with the catcher’s performance after he signed a three-year contract extension late in spring training.
“You have to ask him what happened early in the season, if it was a matter that he was feeling the pressure because he signed the contract or he got lazy,” said Cora. “I already told him where he was in my list. He went from the penthouse to down there to the penthouse again.”
Yet Vazquez restored his standing in Cora’s eyes with his work during the postseason, which the Sox see as a building block.
“The confidence he gained in October is going to have a huge impact of who he is this year,” said Cora. “You can see it.”
Righthander Tyler Thornburg got hammered for three runs on four hits in an inning, including a colossal homer by Pete Alonso on a poorly located fastball. Though he’s shown consistent mid-90s fastball velocity, Thornburg has allowed seven runs on 10 hits in four innings.
“From the next one on is go-time. He knows it,” said Cora. “At one point in spring training we’ve got to start seeing results. We do believe we’re going to see results.”
Matt Barnes, in his first game action of the spring, allowed three runs, but Cora was not concerned after seeing the righthander working at 95-96 m.p.h. “He showed he’s rested and he’s healthy,” Cora said.
J.D. Martinez made his first appearance in the field, playing right with Mookie Betts in center and Andrew Benintendi in left. While Martinez spent the early part of the year playing left at Fenway, as the season progressed the Red Sox switched to leave Benintendi in left to handle the nuances of the wall, while keeping Martinez in right, where his arm remains an asset. The manager anticipates Martinez playing “close to” the same number of games (57) that he spent in the outfield in 2018 . . . Rick Porcello will make his first start of the spring against the Rays in Port Charlotte on Sunday. A number of Sox regulars will also make the trip, including Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and self-proclaimed MVP favorite Brock Holt . . . A pair of Heisman Trophy winners were on hand. Tim Tebow, the 2007 winner, entered the game in the bottom of the sixth inning as a defensive replacement for the Mets and received an ovation. He grounded to first in his only at-bat. His performance was observed by Boston College alum Doug Flutie, the 1984 Heisman winner . . . Former Red Sox bench coach Gary DiSarcina and hitting coach Chili Davis made the trip across the state for the game, as did Wareham, Mass., native Will Toffey, a 2017 fourth-round selection by the A’s out of Vanderbilt who was traded to the Mets last year for Jeurys Familia.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com.