FORT MYERS, Fla. — So much has changed for the Red Sox since they won the 2018 World Series, little of it in a positive way.
The Sox finished 19 games out of first last season; Chris Sale got hurt; Alex Cora was washed out of town in the wake of a scandal, and ownership used up 18 years of goodwill by trading Mookie Betts and leaving Brock Holt on the curb.
As the Red Sox work toward making the coming season something worth paying attention to, Eduardo Rodriguez stands out as a change for the better.
An injury-prone underachiever for much of his career, Rodriguez tied for the American League lead with 34 starts last season. That led to him going 19-6 with a 3.81 earned run average and a sixth-place finish in the Cy Young Award voting.
Everybody wondered what Rodriguez was capable of if only he could stay healthy. He finally showed what that was and it was impressive.
The Red Sox need that again from Rodriguez this season, especially with Sale set to start the season back on the injured list and another rotation spot vacant.
So when Rodriguez started his spring by firing three scoreless innings against the Yankees on Saturday afternoon, it was reassuring.
The lefthander allowed two hits and struck out six without a walk. He threw 32 of 56 pitches for strikes and artfully worked out of a jam in the second inning.
With runners on first and second with no outs, Rodriguez struck out Thairo Estrada looking at a changeup then used his sinker to get Estevan Florial to ground into a double play.
“That’s what we were looking for,” said Rodriguez, who credited catcher Christian Vazquez with helping him work out of trouble.
Rodriguez will get four more starts if he pitches every five days the rest of spring training. That would set him up to get an extra day of rest before facing the Blue Jays on Opening Day on March 26 in Toronto.
At 26, Rodriguez would be the youngest Opening Day starter for the Sox since 1996 when 26-year-old Pedro Martinez was the choice.
The Sox haven’t announced their Game 1 starter yet, but their actions point to it being Rodriguez.
“If it happens, it happens,” Rodriguez said. “For me, just go out there every five days, no matter if it’s the first or the fifth starter. You saw me last year, I can’t remember what number I had, but I was No. 1 throwing 34 starts.”
Rodriguez was the No. 3 starter out of the gate last season. But he was clearly their best when the season ended as injuries limited the impact Sale, David Price, and Nate Eovaldi had while Rick Porcello struggled.
“I think [Rodriguez] attacked the zone better,” manager Ron Roenicke said. “The year before, just trying to get him through five innings was tough for a while.”
Rodriguez has averaged 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings the last three seasons. But he also led the AL with 75 walks last year. That’s where the biggest improvement can be made.
“Eddie gets to 0-2, 1-2 as fast as anybody in the game,” Roenicke said. “And then it’s a matter of how far out of the zone do you need to go? Whether you’re trying get a strikeout or just get the ball in play and get some quick outs. The more that he does that the longer he can go into games.”
During a seven-minute chat with reporters after he came out of the game, Rodriguez made eight references to his focus being on making every start. That was something Porcello and Price drilled into him last season and it took hold.
“I did it last year and now I know how to keep my body ready to go out there every five days,” Rodriguez said. “If I do that, the rest will happen.”
That’s essentially a requirement for the Sox, who could start the season using openers in two of their rotation spots until Sale gets back.
New chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom is confident the Sox have enough arms to cover all the gaps. But Rodriguez delivering as he did last season will make that a lot easier.
“I think we really need the length that he’s going to give us. The consistency is huge,” Roenicke said. “Every time he goes out there you think you’re going to win a game. You have to have that in your starting rotation.”