Tanner Houck is the Future (and Present)

You never know what to expect from young pitchers when the pressure turns up in the postseason. Some can handle it, and even thrive on it, and others collapse and lower their performance level. Good thing for the Red Sox, 25-year old Tanner Houck is thriving in his first taste of postseason baseball this season. Houck has emerged as the top long arm out of the bullpen during this postseason run, using his experience as a starter to help him stretch out in his relief appearances or give a short outing if needed. Houck has appeared in 2 postseason outings thus far and yesterday, he may have saved the Red Sox season.

In the first 3 postseason games for the Red Sox, Houck has appeared twice, throwing a shutout inning with 2 Ks against the Yankees in the AL Wild Card game and yesterday he relieved Chris Sale in the 2nd inning and threw 5 innings of 1 run, 2 hit ball with 5 Ks. The context of yesterday’s performance was incredible. He came in after Sale allowed 5 runs in the first inning, 4 off a Jordan Luplow grand slam, and was asked to stop the bleeding and try to fill some innings. Houck did more than stop the bleeding, he completely shut down the Rays throwing 4 perfect innings before allowing 2 hits, including a solo HR, in his 5th inning of relief. It was exactly what the Red Sox needed to stay in the game and let their offense get back in the game (which they did in a BIG way).

In critical, high pressure situations, Houck has been lights out. His outing prior to his two postseason appearances was essentially another postseason game. He came in early in relief of Chris Sale in the final game of the season at the Washington Nationals in essentially a must win. He spun another absolute gem, going 5 perfect innings with 8 Ks to keep the Red Sox in the game and allow for a comeback (sense a pattern here?). His last 3 appearances, in the highest of pressure situations, he has allowed 2 hits (1 HR), 0 BBs, and accumulated 15Ks in 11 innings. That’s dominance when the Red Sox needed it the most.

If the Red Sox can find a way to beat the Rays twice more and move on to the ALCS, Houck could be a pivotal piece of the pitching staff, whether as a starter or reliever. There will definitely be a decision to make about the starters in a 7-game series, especially with Eduardo Rodriguez‘s struggles and Sale clearly not being right coming off of Tommy John surgery. Eovaldi is definitely the Red Sox #1, and then it’s a mush of Nick Pivetta, Sale, ERod, and maybe Houck to either start or be long-relief. It feels like the Rays “starter” model of the last several years, where the starter is only expected to go a few innings backed up by a deep bullpen.

All of this sets Houck up to be a member of the starting rotation for the Red Sox next year, which is exciting to think about. The Red Sox have been searching for rotation depth, especially some younger talent to infuse energy. Tanner Houck is a guy who can give you a chance to win every 5th day and his ceiling is pretty high. He has the makeup to be a front-end rotation talent with a bit more experience and could be the future #1 in this rotation. Even more importantly, he’s proven he can pitch well and even be dominant when the lights are the brightest.

A Wild Finish Sets Up a Rivalry Grudge Match

Everyone take a breath. No really, it’s ok the breathe now. That was one of the wildest final few days of the regular season I’ve ever seen in the MLB and the every-team-starts-at-3pm-on-the-final-day-of-the-season was intense and absolutely amazing. Going into game 162 there were a half-dozen scenarios involving the 4 teams fighting for the 2 AL Wild Card spots, including a potential for a 4-way tie. As the games began, all Red Sox needed to host the AL Wild Card game was a W, but the anxiety increased for Red Sox fans pretty quickly.

With the 4 games that impacted the AL Wild Card all happening simultaneously, there was no time to sit back and relax. I was watching the Red Sox at Nationals and checking in on Rays at Yankees, Orioles at Blue Jays, and Angels at Mariners. Thankfully, for my sanity not for the wild card race, the Blue Jays jumped all over the Orioles early making that a game I didn’t have to keep checking. As time ticks on, the Rays and Yankees are still scoreless and Chris Sale is, well, not Chris Sale-ing, my anxiety level rose. Once Sale walked in a run and was pulled in the 3rd inning, doom and gloom began to overtake me. The Red Sox were guaranteed a game 163, but no one wanted it to be a tie-breaker game.

Once Garrett Richards gave up the 2-run double to retiring catcher Alex Avila, I thought that was it. It was 5-1 Nationals and I was figuring out my schedule for a potential tie-breaker game on Monday and running through all the potential scenarios once again. As the game progressed, my anxiety grew even higher the longer the Rays and Yankees remained scoreless. The Red Sox got one back in the 6th, then down 3 in the 7th, three straight singles makes in 5-3 and Alex Verdugo has one of the biggest hits of the season with a 2-run double to tie the game. For those who are keeping track, the Red Sox and Nationals are tied 5-5 and the Rays and Yankees are tied 0-0, both in the very late innings.

Then, the pressure grew to new heights when Aaron Judge had the softest walkoff hit I’ve ever seen (bunts not withstanding) to give the Yankees a 1-0 victory. The Red Sox’s chances of hosting the wild card game were slipping, but there was still time. Eduardo Rodriguez shutdown the Nationals in the bottom of the 8th and then the Red Sox get their chance to bat in the top of the 9th with the heart of the lineup scheduled to bat (2-3-4). Kyle Schwarber led it off with a ground ball to the shifted 2nd baseman on the outfield grass and he couldn’t play it cleanly so the Red Sox have some life for Xander Bogaerts. Unfortunately X-man continued his awful stretch with a K, bringing Rafael Devers up to bat.

Devers swung at the first pitch splitter and missed, then watched 2 more splitters to move the count to 2-and-1. The Nationals pitcher Kyle Finnegan then made a critical error, throwing Raffy a 4th straight splitter on the inside part of the plate and Devers crushed it. A 447-foot HR to give the Red Sox their first lead of the game and put them in a position to host the AL Wild Card game on Tuesday night. In the all-hands-on-deck game 162, starter Nick Pivetta came in to close the game out in the bottom of the 9th and retired the Nationals in order, including an impressive strikeout of Juan Soto to end the game.

It wasn’t easy, but nothing has been since June. This team was one of the best in baseball for the first 3-months of the season but has struggled and had to fight and claw for everything since that point. The fact they needed 162 games to get into the postseason is hard to swallow, but if you compare that to the pre-season expectations for this team, the postseason is an accomplishment to celebrate. The Red Sox officially finish the year 92-70, which is a great record in any situation. Before the season, Sports Illustrated predicted the Red Sox would finish 80-82 this season, 17 games behind the Yankees and 4th place in the AL East and the betting over/under on wins for the Red Sox was 80.5.

I know this team almost collapsed and may bow out of the playoffs before getting into a series, but big picture, this has been a successful season for the Boston Red Sox to this point. It’s really hard to see that when watching day-in and day-out, but to be as competitive as they have been in a division stacked with 4 playoff-worthy teams. The Red Sox played nearly 1/3 of their games (57) against the Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees, and Toronto Blue Jays, all 90+ win teams and 2 of the 3 are in the postseason and 1 missed the postseason by a single game. The Red Sox won the season series with the Yankees and Blue Jays, albeit by 1 game, but it’s why they are hosting the AL Wild Card game on Tuesday.

There is a lot to unpack about the 2021 season for the Red Sox and thankfully there is an offseason for that, but for now, I’m just looking forward to a single-elimination game between two storied rivals at America’s Most Beloved Ballpark on Tuesday night at 8:08pm EST.

A Pathetic and Embarrassing Performance By the Red Sox

Do the Boston Red Sox players know that they are playing for their playoff lives this last week of the season? If they do, they sure fooled me. Their performance against the 51-win Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday night was pathetic and embarrassing. Their defense let them down, again, and the offense looked completely lost and uninterested. Where is the leadership on this team? Do they even want to make the wild card game at this point or would they rather be golfing?

The situation seemed absolutely perfect for a big win on Tuesday. Chris Sale was on the mound following a rough weekend sweep by the Yankees and the Orioles are the worst team in baseball. That certainly should be enough for a W with this Red Sox offense. As it turns out, they couldn’t get more than 2 hits against the Orioles starter Bruce Zimmerman who was making his first MLB start since mid-June and mustered just 1 hit against the Orioles bullpen in 5 innings. Once again the defense made several critical mistakes, including 2 huge ones in the 8th inning with Rafael Devers‘ errant throw to first and Alex Verdugo‘s complete misplay of a ball in right leading to the Orioles 4th run.

The most egregious issue to me was the complete lack of plate discipline in the final stretch of the game when the team needed base runners and a spark on offense. According to Alex Speier on Twitter, from the 6th through the 8th inning, the Red Sox saw just 2.4 pitches per plate appearance including 5 plate appearances of 2 or fewer pitches seen. The impatience shows a lack of urgency and understanding the situation, not to mention the batters came across as listless and uninterested at times. Where was Alex Cora during that stretch? Clearly not reminding his players of the situation and approach.

I honestly just don’t understand Tuesday night’s performance. It feels like this team has not only lost its way, but is so far off the rails that no one can bring them back. At this point even if they make the playoffs, which has suddenly become a giant if, they have no chance at moving on unless something magical happens and they learn how to play defense, hit consistently, and pitch in clutch situations. This has been an epically embarrassing collapse.

Orioles Just What the Doctor Ordered

The last three weeks have been brutal for the Boston Red Sox. From July 24 through Aug 12, the Red Sox went 6-13 and went from being tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for 1st in the AL East to 5 games back. Other than one 20-run outburst on August 11 against the Rays, the Red Sox bats went cold and the pitching staff was struggling to keep opponents off the scoreboard. Then the Baltimore Orioles came to town.

When a really good team is struggling, sometimes it takes a little spark, and a terrible opponent, to right the ship. In a 3-game set at home against the Orioles this past weekend, the offense exploded for 30 runs and the pitching staff held the lowly Orioles to just 5 total runs in the series. While the results are in no way surprising since the Os sit at 38-78 on the season, a whopping 24.5 games out of 4th place in the AL East, the course correction couldn’t have happened soon enough. The Red Sox are talented, but were struggling top to bottom this past month.

Hopefully seeing the bat hit the ball and the K’s pile up will instill confidence across the roster for a team that was overflowing with it the first half of the year. The return of ace SP Chris Sale on Friday for the first time in two years was definitely a moment for the team to step up and it caused an energizing jolt. Sale’s 5 IP and 2 ERs were a welcome sight and hopefully the beginning of a slow build to the postseason for him and consistent starts every five days. The official Red Sox debut of DH/OF/1B (maybe) Kyle Schwarber also provided an offensive kick with 2 BBs on Saturday and 2 doubles on Sunday. The long overdue move to put young SP Tanner Houck in the rotation permanently also helps to solidify a struggling group and moves a few decent arms into the bullpen where they are more likely to have success.

It’s just three games against the worst team in baseball, but the jolt in confidence will hopefully carry over going forward. The Red Sox schedule continues with a 3-games set in the Bronx against the New York Yankees beginning Monday, which will be hard-fought. Unfortunately for the Red Sox, they will have a tough time gaining ground in the AL East the next few weeks because the 1st place Rays are playing the Orioles 6 of their next 11 games.

Can the Bleeding Be Stopped for the Red Sox?

The last few weeks have been an abject disaster for the Boston Red Sox. The team has gone from an over-achieving, likable contender that was fun to watch to an under-achieving, disappointing mess that makes me want to turn off the TV at least twice a game. Since July 28th, the Red Sox are 3-10 and have gone from 1st place in the AL East, 2.5 games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays and 8.5 games ahead of the New York Yankees, to 2nd place in the AL East, 4 games back of the Rays and just 1.5 games ahead of the Yankees. The team is collapsing in every aspect of play with less than 50 games left. Can the season be salvaged at this point?

The 2021 season has been a tail of two halves (pre/post All Star game). The 1st half saw the Red Sox surprise everyone with a 55-36 record and a +57 run differential. After a sweep at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles to start the year, the team turned on the jets and were winning games in every way, including 30+ come from behind victories. It felt like this team had the championship contender x-factors: grittiness and never-give-up-mentality. Then the 2nd half of the season kicked off and the team has lost the qualities we fell in love with earlier in the year. Their 10-13 record in the 2nd half is highlighted by a -24 run differential.

The biggest issue with the team right now? It depends on the game, but basically everything. For most of the season the starting pitching has been just OK but the offense has more than made up for poor starts. The offense overall was averaging a very strong 5.1 runs per game before the All-Star break, but since the break, that number has dropped more than a run per game to 3.8. On the pitching side, the staff was allowing 4.0 runs per game in the first half and have been allowing 4.6 runs per game since the break. While the pitching jump isn’t as drastic as the offensive production drop, the combination of the two is dramatic.

The struggles on offense can be directly linked to the top two hitters in the lineup, J.D. Martinez (.253 in 21 games in the 2nd half with just 3 HRs and 9 RBIs) and Xander Bogaerts (.221 in 20 games in the 2nd half with 1 HR and 5 RBIs). During the 1st half of the season, Martinez’s average was .046 points higher and Bogaerts’ average was .100 points higher than the 2nd half. Overall, the team average dropped .009, which doesn’t seem significant in a small sample, but is obviously showing itself in runs scored. There is also some diminished power in the 2nd half of the season with the team’s HRs per game number dropping from 1.26 to 1.13, but even the 1.13 is inflated thanks to a 6 HR and 5 HR game on July 19 and 21. Since July 21, the Red Sox are hitting just 0.72 HRs per game.

The the pitching side, it’s a different chapter of the same story. Only 2 of the 5 primary starting pitchers on the Red Sox has an ERA at or below their career average, meaning that based on ERA alone, 3/5 of the starting rotation is underachieving this season. Since ERA doesn’t tell the whole story, a look at WHIP (Walks and Hits per Inning) confirms the struggles with 3/5 of the rotation above their career average. While the overall picture isn’t great, the 1st half vs 2nd half disparity is even worse. The ERA growth in the 2nd half of the season is absolutely crushing the team right now. All but one starter’s ERA has grown since the All-Star break, and the lone exception, E-Rod, was already so high at 5.52 before the break that a drop isn’t shocking (Garrett Richards +1.84 ERA, Nathan Eovaldi +2.30, Eduardo Rodriguez -1.32, Martin Perez +4.78, Nick Pivetta +0.20).

There has been, and will continue to be, a lot of talk around the inactivity at the trade deadline for the Red Sox, but I’m honestly not sure it would have made enough of a difference. As the offense has come back down to earth and the pitching staff has struggle a bit more, one more starter and one more offensive player weren’t going to turn around the fortunes of this club, but could have helped win a game or two. It’s an overall team struggle at the moment.

There were a few encouraging offensive signs in the series finale against the Toronto Blue Jays. If the bats can come alive and return to form and the pitching staff can begin to right the ship just a little, even just a little, they can recover. The addition of a 75% Chris Sale will help significantly by moving a starter to the bullpen helping to alleviate some strain there. The Red Sox are still 16 games above .500 despite the horrible slide, so a course correction could leave them in the hunt. I don’t think they are good enough to be a legitimate championship contender anymore the way the roster stands, but some competitive postseason baseball would be nice…please.