The Red Sox need Nate Eovaldi.
He battled injuries for a large chunk of 2019, but when he did pitch, he wasn’t very good either. He struggled with command. He struggled to locate his 100 mile-per-hour fastball at the top of the zone. His splitter wasn’t working.
This season offers Eovaldi a new slate, but also more pressure in the absence of starters. Monday marked the unofficial beginning of that for Eovaldi.
Eovaldi took the hill against the Minnesota Twins in his first start of the spring. The Sox lost, 3-2, but that wasn’t the story, of course. Eovaldi went two innings without yielding a run. He struck out four and allowed two hits. His velocity was there — 99 m.p.h. on his first pitch, then later on that inning, he pumped 100 to Nelson Cruz on a ball that just missed the outer edge of the plate.
The Twins hitters weren’t missing the fastball, though. Eddie Rosario squared up Eovaldi to the warning track in center; Jackie Bradley Jr. camped under it to make the play. Cruz stung a single up the middle which kicked off the bottom of Eovaldi’s foot.
Manager Ron Roenicke intimated before the game that hitters are too advanced now. You can’t just blow a fastball by them.
“I know he’s got great stuff,” Roenicke said. “These big-league hitters, they’re getting better and better. They’re getting more used to seeing that type of velocity. The more velocity we see in this game, the more they get used to it, and you’re going to really have to start making pitches like everybody.”
It was like Eovaldi heard Roenicke’s voice through the press room walls. Shortly after the hard contact, he started using his full arsenal: Fastball, cutter, slider, curveball, and splitter. The splitter was the most effective. Eovaldi struck out three in the second, all swinging.
“Last year [my splitter] was real inconsistent,” Eovaldi said. “And that was one of the pitches I focused on this offseason to make sure I got back on track. Today they were real consistent, so that’s what I’m looking for.”
Eovaldi said the feel and flow of the game dictated what he would throw. He didn’t like the command of his slider, but by him just throwing his offspeed and breaking pitches, it played up his fastball more.
“There were a lot of lefties in there today,” Eovaldi said. “The lefties, I feel like I was throwing a lot of good cutters in to speed them up and then the splitter away, so I felt like me and [Christian] Vazquez had a good mix of pitches going today. That was the key takeaway from it.”
Said Roenicke: “When he’s got that kind of command and he’s down in the zone on his offspeed, he’s so tough to hit, with the velocity that you always have to be aware of as a hitter. To be able to stay back and see the other stuff is just difficult.”
The spring for a veteran like Eovaldi shouldn’t matter, but the fragility of this rotation can certainly amplify the critique, even though its just February. Chris Sale had a barking elbow late last season — there’s no telling how it might hold up — and battled pneumonia just before this spring; he’s currently just throwing bullpens. David Price is out west. There’s a hole in the No. 5 spot, which will probably require the Sox trading for another starter.
And for Eovaldi, durability and health are always a question. The last time he pitched more than 150 innings was with the New York Yankees in 2015. During his playoff run with the Sox in 2018, Eovaldi practically emptied the tank for a championship.
It wouldn’t have been unfathomable for the club to move on from him. Eovaldi was 28, but he’d had two Tommy John surgeries . It didn’t, however, and he is now tasked with keeping the thin rotation in order.
“If he’s healthy, he’s a big arm,” J.D. Martinez said. “Never hurts to have a guy like that in your rotation.”
Toward the end of the game Monday, one Twins player couldn’t help but comment on Eovaldi’s velocity as he made his way through the concourse and out of the stadium.
“Eovaldi’s gotta slow it down!” the player screamed out. “Ninety-nine in his first start?! He could get hurt!”
The Sox hope that’s not the case. They need him for the long haul.