BOSTON — May is upon us, and David Price is still nine days — at the absolute minimum — from starting a minor-league rehab assignment that figures to determine how much he will be able to pitch for the Boston Red Sox this season.
What a time, then, for Eduardo Rodriguez to do his best Price impression.
The record will show that Rodriguez was out of Sunday night’s game before the Red Sox scored four runs in an eighth-inning rally that began against their former closer Koji Uehara and decided a 6-2 victory in the rubber game of a three-game series against the world champion Chicago Cubs at Fenway Park. But make no mistake, the most important development for the Sox were the six dominant innings delivered by Rodriguez in front of a national television audience.
“He pitched, I think, the best game that I’ve ever seen from him,” catcher Christian Vazquez said.
And that’s saying something. Even though Rodriguez has not yet demonstrated the consistency to fulfill his potential as a No. 2 or 3 starter, he has put together promising stretches over the past two years. There was, for instance, the seven-start stretch to close the 2015 season in which he went 4-1 with a 2.08 ERA. Last season, he posted a 3.24 ERA in 14 starts after the All-Star break.
But E-Rod had never before struck out a league MVP (Kris Bryant) and a World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist) in the same inning, part of a run of five consecutive strikeouts and eight in a span of 12 Cubs batters. The biggest came in the fourth inning when he got Jon Jay to chase a dirt-diving changeup to escape a two-on, two-out situation.
In all, Rodriguez racked up nine strikeouts and 16 swing-and-misses, many on that changeup that is typically his best pitch and has rarely been nastier. He gave up a lone run on Bryant’s solo homer in the fifth inning.
“He was sharp, man,” Vazquez said. “He did a great job. His changeup was the best changeup I’ve seen from him.”
It was the continuation of a promising start seven days earlier. After returning from paternity leave for the birth of his son, Rodriguez held the Baltimore Orioles to one hit (and five walks) over six innings.
“He’s very capable,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “This is a talented young guy that’s starting to understand what pitches to go to in key spots to minimize potential damage. I think you watch his individual routine in between starts. He’s much more consistent with his work and his game preparation, putting a game plan together. That has all evolved over the past year for Eddie.”
Surely, the Red Sox need it. Ace lefty Chris Sale does his Pedro Martinez act every five days, and Rick Porcello has looked better lately after a rocky start. But with no return date in sight for Price, who is progressing more slowly than expected from a spring-training elbow injury, the Red Sox have been hoping either Rodriguez, fellow lefty Drew Pomeranz or knuckleballer Steven Wright would step up.
“Setting aside the other performances, you lose a pitcher of David Price’s talent and capabilities, that creates a hole regardless of who’s in the rotation with him,” Farrell said. “It’s a frontline pitcher. Any time those pitchers — in this case, David — are unavailable, sure, it’s an impact to your team.”
But Rodriguez can lessen that impact — significantly. He has a 2.70 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings over four starts. And mowing down the heart of the Cubs’ batting order — Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Zobrist, Addison Russell and Jason Heyward — in succession can only help his confidence.
“I mean, I’ve never pitched in the playoffs, but it must feel like that,” Rodriguez said. “There’s a lot of history between those teams, and to face [those hitters] got me really excited to have the opportunity. I just want to keep doing what I’m doing and keep throwing my pitches and give the team the opportunity to win games.”
So far, at least, so good.