It’s fair to say that Garrett Whitlock has quickly immersed himself into the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry.
As a former Yankees prospect who came over to the Sox by way of the Rule 5 Draft over the winter, that was probably to be expected. Still, Whitlock has seemingly exceeded expectations while serving a key role out of the Boston bullpen in his rookie season, especially when going up against his former club.
Sunday afternoon’s outing at Fenway Park proved to be the latest instance of that, as the right-hander was dispatched in the seventh inning of a 6-2 game in favor of the Sox.
Inheriting a situation in which the Yankees had put runners at first and second while only recording one out, Whitlock walked the first man he faced in Gary Sanchez, which brought the tying run to the plate in the form of one of, if not New York’s most dangerous hitter: D.J. LeMahieu.
On just four pitches, Whitlock struck out LeMahieu, getting the two-time batting champ to go down looking on a 96 mph sinker on the outer half of the plate.
Having cleared one hurdle, the next challenge for the young reliever was to retire the vaunted Aaron Judge, who had already gone deep off Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez the inning prior.
This time needing three pitches, Whitlock got Judge to pop out to first baseman Danny Santana in foul territory, thus putting out the flames by leaving the bases loaded going into the bottom half of the seventh.
When asked about what his approach was while going up against a hitter who has the ability to drive one out of the ballpark at any moment such as Judge, Whitlock credited his catcher, Christian Vazquez, for the preparation that went into that anticipated matchup.
“I was trusting Vazqy,” he said. “During our meetings, we knew exactly how we were going to attack him. So I trusted Vazqy and we just stuck to the approach and got some executed pitches and, luckily, he got out.”
The pitch Whitlock got Judge to pop out on was a well-executed, 84 mph slider on the outer half of the plate that the Yankees slugger got under with no real force.
The slider is a pitch Whitlock has been implementing more and more into his repertoire — especially against right-handed hitters — as of late to complement his fastball and changeup as well as add another dimension to his effectiveness. It has proven to be a useful asset thus far.
“It’s something we needed to implement against righties,” said the Georgia native. “Because, as you all saw, once the quote-unquote book got out on me, they were just taking the fastball to the opposite field, and that would make them on-time for the changeup.
“So with the slider, it adds a third speed and a different direction that the ball moves,” he added. “So it’s just something that to try so that the hitters can’t just sit fastball the other way and be on time for changeups. Now we’re just trying to be able to have a three-pitch mix rather than just two.”
After the Red Sox added to their lead in the seventh, Whitlock came back out for the eighth, worked his way around a leadoff single by inducing an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play off the bat of Gio Urshela to face the minimum, and later earned his sixth hold of the season in what would go down as a 9-2 win for Boston.
On the 2021 campaign as a whole, Whitlock has been more than impressive, as the 25-year-old rookie now owns an ERA of 1.42 and batting average against of .234 over 22 relief appearances spanning 38 total innings of work.
Against the Yankees specifically, Whitlock has essentially been lights out. Sunday’s performance marked the righty’s third appearance of the year against the team he began his professional career with, and he has yet to give up a run to them while scattering three hits and one walk to go along with six strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings pitched in those appearances.
This weekend also marked the first time Whitlock had the opportunity to pitch against the Yankees at Fenway Park, as his only outing against them earlier this month had come in the Bronx.
While taking the mound at either venue has proven to be nothing out of the ordinary for Whitlock performance-wise, he certainly appreciates having the support of the home fans when working at Fenway as opposed to Yankee Stadium.
“I would say it was a lot more fun today because this time the crowd was behind me, rather than cheering on me to not do good,” Whitlock said when asked about the atmosphere the fans created on Sunday. “Got to love the Red Sox faithful. That’s for sure.”
With a 9-2 win over New York, Boston improved to 6-0 on the season against their archrivals, having swept them twice this month alone. From 2019-2020, the Sox went a combined 6-23 when going up against the Yankees.
“Any time we get a win against anybody, it’s great,” Whitlock said. “But obviously, with the history between the Red Sox and Yankees, you love to beat the Yankees any chance you get. To take six of them so far this year, hopefully we take a lot more than just six.”
For someone who is just three months into his major-league career with the Red Sox, Whitlock is certainly establishing himself as a driving force for why the team has been so successful this year.
After being given just a 39% chance to make the postseason by FanGraphs prior to Opening Day, the Sox are nearly halfway into their 2021 campaign and are currently in possession of first place in the American League East with a record of 47-31.
As is the case with Whitlock, this year’s Red Sox — led by Alex Cora — have unquestionably exceeded preseason expectations, but don’t tell that to anyone inside the Boston clubhouse.
“We’re here to win. This isn’t just another year for the Red Sox,” said Whitlock. “We’ve got a competitive team and we’re trying to go out there every single day. We believe we can win every single day.”
(Picture of Garrett Whitlock: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)