ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — With the iceberg of the July 31 trade deadline coming closer into view, the Red Sox proved unusually candid about a situation of growing uncertainty and peril.
Members of the team recognized that a 14-day, 14-game stretch against the Rays and Yankees that started Monday – and that will continue beyond the trade deadline – likely will shape not only their season but also their roster. Manager Alex Cora publicly acknowledged the possibility that his team might find itself in the unexpected position of deadline seller if it cannot navigate troubled waters.
Given that backdrop, however, the team expressed a measure of relief with the player who would be chiefly responsible for captaining the start of this pivotal stretch: Lefthander Eduardo Rodriguez.
“Steady Eddie,” said David Price with a smile.
In the past, such an appellation seemed anything but fitting. But in 2019, Rodriguez has shed his past inconsistency and emerged as ballast for the Red Sox rotation, a pattern that continued with seven shutout innings in a 9-4 Red Sox victory over the Rays at Tropicana Field.
Though he walked four batters, Rodriguez allowed just two infield singles while striking out six. He did not allow a Tampa Bay baserunner to reach second base.
This was not a pitcher who had to live and die with swings and misses, but instead a confident presence who attacked all four quadrants of the strike zone with four- and two-seam fastballs, while forcing Tampa Bay’s lineup to chase changeups that dove below the zone.
“I know if I keep the ball right where I want it, I’m going to get a groundball. Keep the ball down in the zone,” said Rodriguez, who recorded 11 outs via groundball. “That’s what I think has allowed me to get the groundballs and soft contact.”
Bad contact and precision within the strike zone have allowed Rodriguez to emerge as a steadying force for the Red Sox. Monday’s outing marked the eighth time this year that Rodriguez (12-4) has worked at least 6⅓ innings. Over his last five starts, Rodriguez has a 1.76 ERA while averaging just over six innings per outing; over his last 11 starts, he’s 8-1 with a 3.03 ERA.
“I got on him in Port St. Lucie [in spring training],” Cora recalled of a conversation in which he reminded Rodriguez of the high standards and expectations for his performance. “We know the talent and we know how good he can be . . . Little by little he is becoming the guy we envisioned.”
Rodriguez’s job was made considerably easier by an early offensive eruption against former Red Sox pitcher Jalen Beeks. The lefthander burst out of the gates with a nine-pitch first inning in which his fastball exploded through the top of the strike zone at 96 miles per hour, and sailing through two scoreless innings in just 25 pitches. One day removed from getting held to one hit in a shutout loss to the Orioles, it seemed fair to wonder if the Red Sox were starting an untimely nosedive in the days leading to the trade deadline.
That curiosity vanished in a seven-run third inning eruption.
Marco Hernandez kickstarted the rally with a one-out single and advanced when Beeks walked Mookie Betts. Both runners scampered home when Rafael Devers stayed on a fastball up and away and drilled it to right-center for a two-run double, giving the 22-year-old 53 extra-base hits and 77 RBIs for the year.
Up, 2-0, the Red Sox didn’t relent. After Xander Bogaerts walked, Beeks elected to challenge J.D. Martinez with six straight fastballs. Martinez blasted the last of them, a 92-m.p.h. full-count offering, just to the right of center for a three-run homer, his 20th of the year.
Already up by five runs, the Red Sox continued to roll against their former teammate. Andrew Benintendi, mired in a months-long slump, delivered the signature moment of his 3-for-5 night, staying back on a curveball and depositing the 3-and-1 offering deep into the right-field bleachers for his eighth homer of the year.
“I know what I can do,” said Benintendi. “I just haven’t really done it at all this year. Hopefully tonight can kind of kickstart things.”
Sam Travis then followed suit by lining a first-pitch changeup over the fence in center to put the Red Sox ahead, 7-0.
The Sox kept adding on in the fourth, when Hernandez led off with a single and scored on a bloop double to right by Bogaerts (2 for 3, with two doubles and two walks, boosting his OPS to .968). The nine runs represented the most scored by the Red Sox against the Rays since April 7, 2018 (a span of 23 games).
The big lead offered the Red Sox a chance to ease Nate Eovaldi into his return from the injured list – his first appearance since April 17 – in his new role as a reliever. In his ninth career regular-season outing out of the bullpen, Eovaldi showed arm strength, topping out at 99 m.p.h., but, unsurprisingly, given his lengthy absence, he lacked command. The Rays took advantage, sending rockets around the field. Eovaldi allowed five hits and three runs while recording just two outs in his 24 pitches.
“Definitely didn’t go as planned,” said Eovaldi, “but the most important thing is I feel really good and excited to go back out there.”
Matt Barnes cleaned up Eovaldi’s two-on, two-out mess, and the Sox tacked on an insurance run in the ninth against infielder-turned-pitcher Mike Brosseau. Sox reliever Josh Taylor allowed a run in the ninth, accounting for the 9-4 final score that moved the Sox within one game of the Rays.
“When we can keep it rolling like that,” said Benintendi, “we’re a pretty good team.”