In an unsurprising turn of events, Eduardo Rodriguez has been named the Red Sox’ Opening Day starter for the 2021 season, manager Alex Cora announced Wednesday afternoon.
The left-hander had been on track to get the Opening Day nod based off his spring training schedule, and his latest performance against the Twins on Wednesday — in which he yielded just one earned run on two hits, no walks, and six strikeouts over five strong innings at JetBlue Park — all but sealed the deal.
“He’s one of the best out there,” Cora said of Rodriguez during his postgame media availability. “He had a great season in ’19. Last year, he wasn’t able to pitch for obvious reasons. What he’s shown now that he’s healthy, he’s ready to go. 51 pitches in five innings against a good lineup. It was just a matter of time. That’s our Opening Day starter.”
Rodriguez, who turns 28 next month, missed the entirety of the 2020 season after contracting COVID-19 while at home in Florida last July, which led to him being diagnosed with myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) shortly thereafter.
After being shut down from baseball activities for a prolonged period of time, the Venezuelan southpaw came into camp this year a full-go, albeit with concerns surrounding him based off the uncertainties that come with what he went through.
Returning to the mound on March 5 — nearly a year since his last competitive start — to face off against the Rays, Rodriguez picked up where he left off in 2019 and has been one of, if not the most impressive Sox starter so far this spring.
“He’s fresh arm-wise, right?” Cora said when asked why Rodriguez has been so sharp through his first three Grapefruit League starts. “We always talk about the possible negative things that happen because he didn’t pitch. Well, maybe there’s a few positives right? He’s not coming from an arm injury. He just obviously wasn’t able to pitch for health reasons.
“But he had a great offseason. A clean one,” added Cora. “He was able to work out and do everything as expected. He was on point as far as his throwing program. And he’s showing that he’s made some progress at throwing strikes. This is not the same guy that we saw in ’18 during the season. This is more similar to the guy who pitched Game 4 of the World Series. Attacking hitters and being efficient.”
Had the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic not forced Major League Baseball to postpone the start of the 2020 season, Rodriguez — not Nathan Eovaldi — would have likely been Boston’s Opening Day starter regardless of who the manager of the team was at that time.
“He was going to be my Opening Day starter last year,” Cora said. “Coming into camp, I had an idea. I just wanted to make sure he was healthy enough. It’s not fair to tell him, ‘Hey, you’re going to be the guy.’ And all of a sudden he goes out there he can’t go three, four, five [innings]. But that was really good today. That was really good. He’s so sharp right now, I wish his next start was April 1, but that’s not the case. He’ll keep working. But I knew coming into this that if he was OK through the progression, it was going to be him.”
Last time Rodriguez took the mound in a legitimately competitive environment, he put together the best season of his career to this point in 2019.
Over a team-leading 34 starts, the 6-foot-2, 237 pound lefty posted a 3.81 ERA and 3.86 FIP to go along with 213 strikeouts and 75 walks over 203 1/3 total innings of work.
He finished sixth in American League Cy Young voting for his efforts that year, but he still led the A.L. in walks and was someone who received some tough love from Cora from the earliest stages of the spring until the waning days of September.
“I still remember that at-bat in Port St. Lucie against Dominic Smith,” the Sox skipper said when recalling Rodriguez’s second start of the spring two years ago. “It drove me nuts. 0-2, two outs, and he walks that guy. And I think they scored like three off him in that first inning. And the next time he threw a bullpen, he didn’t even want to talk to me because I was hard on him in the media. I said it, and he took it personal.
“But he understands,” continued Cora. “He understands that I’m going to push him. That’s what I’m here for. That’s my job… With Eddie, I found out you got to be hard on him, and it works. It’s fun to watch.”
Cora then recalled a conversation he had with quality control coach Ramon Vazquez in which he attributed Rodriguez’s rise to an ace to the start he made against the Dodgers in Game 4 of the 2018 World Series.
“The way he attacked that lineup after playing I don’t know how many innings, and we needed him to step up in Game 4,” said Cora. “I think that was kind of like the confidence builder. Like, ‘If I can do that in the World Series, I’m fine. I’m good.’
“So I’m proud,” he added. “It’s not happy. I’m just proud of him. Very proud.”
Rodriguez will make his first start of the 2021 campaign — and his first ever Opening Day start — against the Orioles on April 1 at Fenway Park. He should be pitching in front of approximately 4,500 fans.
For his career against his former organization, the 27-year-old hurler owns a lifetime 3.24 ERA and .634 OPS against over 19 total appearances (17 starts) and 102 2/3 innings pitched.
First pitch for that contest, which is now just over two weeks away, is scheduled for 2:10 p.m. eastern time.
(Picture of Eduardo Rodriguez: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)