Brock Holt entered Saturday with 23 homers in his eight-year career. He had the fewest — one, in 156 at-bats — among Red Sox regulars this season. When he steps in, it’s hardly a likelihood he’ll go yard.
But Saturday was not a typical evening for Holt, who left the team with a heavy heart and returned with someone special on his mind.
Holt’s fifth-inning solo homer kick-started Boston’s 4-0 win over Baltimore at Fenway Park. The Red Sox scored another run on a wild pitch that inning, got a two-run homer from Rafael Devers two innings later, and needed nothing more thanks to a strong outing from Eduardo Rodriguez and solid defense.
Boston (66-59) kept pace with victorious Tampa Bay, staying 6½ games behind in the race for the second wild card.
Hours after Chris Sale hit the injured list with elbow inflammation, Rodriguez (14-5) departed to a standing ovation after 7⅓ innings of shutout ball. He walked two in one inning and hit a batter in another, but escaped sans damage and set a new career high for victories in a season. The Orioles managed four hits off his 106 pitches.
“He’s been stepping up,” said manager Alex Cora, who greatly appreciated a deep outing from Rodriguez given the fact Sunday starter Nathan Eovaldi was expected to last about 60 pitches in his return to the rotation. “Knowing where we were going into tomorrow, he did an outstanding job.”
Devers, the 22-year-old wunderkind, increased his major-league leads in hits (163) and extra-base hits (73) by knocking his 26th homer of the season off reliever Paul Fry.
“That’s a tough lefty,” Cora said. “For him to stay on the pitch and go the other way with two strikes, that’s special.”
It was, and it gave the Sox room to breathe, but it didn’t carry the emotional weight of Holt’s blast.
After depositing a first-pitch fastball from Orioles starter Asher Wojciechowski into the bullpen, Holt rounded second and patted his heart twice. He did it again after crossing the plate, again looking to the sky.
“Just in case he wasn’t watching the first one,” Holt said.
His gestures were in remembrance of Derwood “Pops” Penney, who died last Saturday at age 78 in Corsicana, Texas.
At Navarro College, a junior college in that town, the 16-year volunteer assistant coach helped turn Holt into a Rice University recruit, and a major-league prospect who was taken in the ninth round of the 2009 draft by Pittsburgh. Holt considered him his hero, and the two remained close until Penney’s passing. The Red Sox allowed him to miss two games of last week’s series with the Indians to attend his funeral.
“Very happy for him,” Cora said. “He’s a good man. I know it’s been a tough week for him. I’m happy he was able to perform the way he did tonight, and get that big swing to get us going.”
When Holt checked his phone after the game, a text from Penney’s widow of 57 years, Wanda, was waiting for him.
“Pretty cool thing,” said Holt, his eyes glistening after that recollection. “I know he was proud of me.”
The homer helped make a loser out of Wojciechowski (2-6), who mowed down the Sox in the teams’ most recent series.
Entering Saturday, Wojciechowski had struck out 10½ batters per nine innings since coming to the O’s in a July 1 trade with Cleveland. His best performance to date with his new team: that aforementioned July 21 start against Boston, when he struck out 10 in 7 ⅓innings of one-hit ball. That was his only shutout since arriving from the Indians’ Triple-A outfit.
He looked ready to repeat that Saturday, fanning four in his first three innings, including Devers (twice), Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez. But after Holt’s homer and his run-scoring wild pitch, he was pulled with a 5-hit, 3-walk, 4-strikeout line in 4⅓ innings.
Rodriguez, who has gone at least five innings in 20 starts, got it back on track after allowing 10 hits and five runs over seven innings in his last start. The Orioles’ feeble offense had trouble making contact.
Boston’s run-’em-down defense helped. The Sox gave Rodriguez a double play to get out of the second, and in the third, Bogaerts made a sliding stop on a chopper up the middle, firing to first for the out. In the dugout, Rick Porcello approvingly doffed his cap.
Bogaerts and Devers combined to cut down a runner at third in the sixth, the Orioles unsuccessfully challenging Devers’ tag on Bogaerts’ throw. The out was upheld after a 52-second review.
The Orioles (39-84) didn’t produce as many gems, but center fielder Stevie Wilkerson made a leaping catch against the wall in straightaway center in the fourth, on a deep drive from Mitch Moreland. Wilkerson’s legs splayed underneath him as he awkwardly crashed into the wall.
The Orioles had their only true offensive threat off reliever Matt Barnes -- two singles and a 56-foot curveball that bounced to the backstop put runners on second and third in the eighth. But he got Anthony Santander swinging at 98-m.p.h. heat, and Renato Nunez looked at strike three.
Brandon Workman pitched a clean ninth to put it away. For a moment, the Red Sox were able to forget the concerning news about Sale. They can’t afford to lose many games, to say nothing of a pitcher of his caliber.