For the first time in his storied big league career, Giants ace Madison Bumgarner took the mound at Fenway Park on Thursday. Yet it was the San Francisco southpaw’s Red Sox counterpart who delivered a performance that more fully resembled a vintage Bumgarner outing.
In the continuation of a breakthrough season, Eduardo Rodriguez delivered a dominant performance for the Red Sox. The lefthander allowed just one unearned run on a meager two hits while striking out 10 and walking two in a 5-4 victory.
With the win, Rodriguez (18-6, 3.53 ERA) moved closer to a trio of milestones. With two starts remaining this season, 20 wins, 200 strikeouts (he has 199), and 200 innings (he’s at 191⅓ ) are all in his reach.
“At the beginning of the season, I was really thinking 200 innings,” said Rodriguez. “That was my goal this year, go 200 innings, 30-plus starts. I made the 30-plus already so now I’m looking for the 200 innings, 200 strikeouts.”
The fact that Rodriguez is approaching such plateaus is a reflection foremost of the pitcher’s talent, yet may also attest to a timely assist that helped turn potential into results.
Rodriguez has a four-seam fastball that has incredible late life when thrown in the upper half of the strike zone. But through 10 starts in 2019, during which he’d gone 4-3 with a 5.43 ERA, he hadn’t been locating the pitch to that area.
On May 21, he allowed three homers to the Blue Jays in a 10-3 loss. In the wake of that outing, pitching coach Dana LeVangie and first baseman Mitch Moreland — a former college pitcher — convened with the lefthander for a conversation about what had transpired.
“It’s been an ongoing conversation with Eddie his entire career — he can throw his fastball up in the zone to most any hitter and have success,” said LeVangie. “You’ve got to take advantage of it while you’ve still got it.”
As Moreland listened to Rodriguez, he recognized some of the same mechanical battles that he had as a hitter: The pitcher was spinning in his delivery, rather than moving toward the plate in more aggressive, direct fashion.
“I was like, ‘I constantly fight that on a daily basis in my swing, so here’s a couple things that help me at times,’ ” said Moreland. “He’s smart, he knows what he’s doing, controls his body really well, and once we started talking about it he made the adjustment in two or three different moves. It took him a couple pitches and he seemed like he was locked in with it. You could tell he’d found it and really been locked in for most of the season.”
On Thursday against the Giants, the elevated four-seamer seemed to overwhelm Giants hitters. Rodriguez got 14 swings and misses on the offering — his season high had been nine — and then left them baffled when he broke two-seam fastballs, changeups, and cutters off the same pitch tunnel.
The execution of his arsenal has helped Rodriguez to dominate, getting swings and misses as well as bad contact in significant quantity. Since the Toronto game, Rodriguez is 14-3 with a 2.77 ERA. Over his last seven outings, he has a 1.00 ERA with 54 strikeouts and just one homer allowed in 45 innings. In four September starts, he has a 0.70 ERA with 39 strikeouts and seven walks in 25⅔ innings.
“It’s like watching David Price back in my days when I was scouting. You might see 95 percent fastballs in a start, they’d all be up in the zone, and it was electric,” said LeVangie. “It’s similar. Very similar.”
Rodriguez and the Sox fell behind, 1-0, in the first inning thanks to an error on second baseman Marco Hernandez that produced a run, but the Sox quickly struck back and Rodriguez never gave the Giants another opportunity.
Against Bumgarner, Andrew Benintendi led off the first with a fly that center fielder Kevin Pillar could not corral while fighting the sun on a cloudless day, a misplay that was ruled a double. After Christian Vazquez walked, Rafael Devers stayed on a 2-2 cutter and dropped it into shallow right for a run-scoring single. Xander Bogaerts followed by volleying a single to center on a 1-2 curveball that gave the Sox a 2-1 advantage.
One inning later, that same quartet delivered three more runs with a two-out rally. Benintendi flicked a Bumgarner cutter to the opposite field for a single, moved to third when Vazquez hit an opposite-field popup down the right field line for a single, and scored when Devers hit a soft fly to center that fell in front of Pillar. Devers hustled into second on the RBI single, a 90-foot advance that became significant when Bogaerts flicked a soft single to right, scoring both runners to put the Sox ahead, 5-1.
“Buzzard’s luck,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy lamented of the rally.
The Red Sox bullpen nearly imploded over the final two innings, giving up two runs in the eighth inning and one in the ninth. Marcus Walden, Matt Barnes, and Brandon Workman combined to allow four hits and four walks in those innings, with Workman’s bases-loaded walk in the ninth to Pillar forcing in a run to narrow the score to 5-4.
But after running the count full to Evan Longoria, Workman (15 saves) dropped a hammer of a curve. Longoria swung at the offering as it kissed the dirt in front of the plate, and the Sox closed out a win to improve to 80-72 on the way to their final road trip of the year.