When it officially was revealed that Tanner Houck would be returning to the Red Sox rotation (days before Chris Sale is due to debut after Tommy John surgery), Xander Bogaerts had what was likely a common reaction.
“Help is on the way,” he told reporters after Wednesday’s game.
And for much of his outing against the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday, Houck looked like the pitcher that Bogaerts was counting on. The Rays did score one run in the third inning, but it wasn’t credited to Houck, so as far as his line was concerned, he held first-place Tampa scoreless through five innings while fanning eight.
Throughout the beginning of his outing, Houck was playing with a four-pitch arsenal, and surprisingly throwing splitters — a pitch he previously has acknowledged the importance of. He threw 11 splitters, far surpassing his previous game-high of four, according to Red Sox Stats on Twitter.
“The splitter’s been that pitch where I’ve worked so hard at it, that I want to go out there and take it into the game and use it,” Houck said after the game over Zoom. “Today was one of those days where I felt really confident with it in the bullpen and I rolled with it out into the game.”
But life came at Houck fast on a tropical day at Fenway Park. He went out for the sixth inning to face the top of the Rays’ order for a third time. Brandon Lowe singled, Wander Franco hit a two-run homer and Nelson Cruz doubled to start things off. Houck promptly was pulled.
The three hits came on varieties of fastballs. Still, Alex Cora was pleased with Houck’s performance. The 25-year-old finished with three earned runs on six hits, striking out eight through five innings.
“He was really good,” Cora said after the 8-1 loss. “He lost a battle there with Franco there in the sixth inning, but overall what we were expecting. This guy is going to compete. He has great stuff and he’s going to give us a chance to win.”
To be fair, Franco had to work for his home run. The hit came on the 11th pitch of the at-bat and was the longest at-bat to conclude with a trip around the bases since 2016, according to Alex Speier of The Boston Globe. And to put a bit of salt in the wound, Franco had to wait for the umpires to rule it a home run before he could complete his lap.
The ball hit off of the top of the Green Monster and into the center field seats, and Fenway ground rules dictate that as a home run.
Houck didn’t have the most immediate help behind him to stop the bleeding. Josh Taylor came in to relieve him and got a groundout and strikeout, then intentionally walked Yandy Diaz. Trade-deadline pick-up Hansel Robles came in to face Manuel Margot in hopes he could end the inning, but he walked to load the bases. Then, Robles balked, bringing home the third run of the inning for the Rays.
The Rays ended up building an 8-1 lead with a four-run eighth, courtesy of Austin Davis and Yacksel Rios.
Here are more notes from Thursday’s Red Sox-Rays game:
— Cora said after the game that Houck will “probably not” remain with the Red Sox, though he made it sound like he will be back with the group sooner rather than later.
— After scoring 20 runs on a season-high 19 hits against the Rays on Wednesday, the Red Sox tied their season low of two hits in Thursday’s game. Cora addressed the lack of production in his postgame press conference.
“We didn’t put the ball in play,” he said. “Just part of baseball, I guess. It wasn’t a great day offensively over all.”
— Rafael Devers extended his hitting streak to five games with a fourth-inning RBI-double. The last time he had a streak of that length was from July 19-24.
His hit was a turning point of the game, too. Before that, the only Red Sox player to reach base was Kiké Hernández, who walked in both of his at-bats up to that point.
— The Red Sox have lost each of their last five series and are 18-14-6 in series this season. They have now lost seven of their last eight games to the Rays after going 4-0 to open the year.
— The Red Sox will host the Baltimore Orioles for a three-game series beginning Friday at 7:10 p.m. ET. Nick Pivetta (8-5, 4.34 ERA) will take the ball for Boston, while Spenser Watkins (2-3, 4.22 ERA) will go for Baltimore.