It isn’t yet official, but the apparent truth is becoming harder and harder to deny. When the Boston Red Sox begin the 2020 season next week, Nathan Eovaldi will be the one throwing the first pitch.
Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke all but confirmed the obvious Tuesday after Eovaldi turned in another fine performance during an intrasquad scrimmage at Fenway Park. Roenicke said he’d likely have the conversation with Eovaldi at some point over the next couple of days.
Roenicke wouldn’t go as far to actually confirm Eovaldi will be the Opening Day starter, but it’s pretty obvious. Eduardo Rodriguez likely would have been bestowed that honor, but he’s still in Florida waiting to be cleared to travel after testing positive for coronavirus. If Rodriguez is the No. 1, Eovaldi is the clear-cut No. 2, and Rodriguez’s limbo paired with an undeniable lack of starting pitching depth makes Eovaldi the single-most-important Red Sox player in this abbreviated 2020 season.
That’s what makes Tuesday’s performance all the more encouraging.
“His strength is there. Then his command, like you saw today, his command has been pretty good,” Roenicke said Tuesday following the club’s workout. “I think he’s pleased with what he’s doing. He’s a perfectionist like all of them, so he wants to continue to get better, but we’re really happy where he’s at.”
The Red Sox need Eovaldi more than ever. The 60-game sprint of a season seemingly benefits Boston — to an extent — but that’s under the assumption Eovaldi and Rodriguez can pitch up to their potential. If they can’t, it’s hard to see a path to the playoffs for the Sox. And with Rodriguez already looking like he’ll have a delayed start to the season, it makes it even more important for Eovaldi to perform like the pitcher Boston inked to a four-year contract extension worth a reported $67.5 million after the 2018 season.
“We know we’re gonna need innings from him with where our rotation is,” Roenicke conceded. “He’s gotta be a guy we can count on to give us innings most every game, and hopefully along with that, throw up a bunch of zeroes — and we’ll score some runs for him.”
Logging those innings has always been an issue for Eovaldi, who has struggled with bad injury luck for much of his career. The flame-thrower was able to set a career-high with 199 2/3 innings pitched in 2014, but that feels like a long time ago. Eovaldi missed the entire 2017 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery and hasn’t pitched more than 155 innings since 2014. And in 160 career starts, the right-hander is averaging just 5.6 innings per start.
But Eovaldi — by his own declaration and performance so far — is healthy after a disastrous 2019 season marred by elbow problems. Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, Eovaldi pitched eight scoreless innings while striking out 12 in three dominant spring training performances. It certainly looks like he’s picked up where he left off, and the sprint nature of the season could benefit someone like Eovaldi, a gym rat whose best work has come in short spurts — like the 2018 playoffs.
He’s certainly ready for the challenge.
“I feel like I’m ready to go,” he said Tuesday. “I’m not going out there and taking it easy. I’m throwing all of my pitches, using my mix. I feel like I’m ready. I’ll have 100 pitches or whatever they want to let me go.”
The Red Sox will certainly take him up on that offer if he can carry his preseason work into the 2020 campaign.