Red Sox pitching prospect Tanner Houck took another important step in building up his arm strength at Polar Park on Tuesday night, which also happened to be his 25th birthday.
Making his third start for Triple-A Worcester since coming off the injured list after missing more than a month with flexor muscle soreness, Houck put together his longest outing in quite a while.
Over four innings of work, the right-hander allowed two runs — both of which were earned — on three hits, zero walks, and two hit batsmen to go along with four strikeouts on the evening.
Both runs Houck surrendered came in his fourth and final frame, as he breezed through the first three and retired the first nine hitters he faced in order before running into some trouble as the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders’ (Yankees affiliate) flipped back over.
In the fourth, Houck issued a leadoff single to Estevan Florial, a run-scoring groundout to Hoy Jun Park that was aided by a throwing error, and back-to-back singles to Ryan LaMarre and Socrates Brito.
He followed that sequence by plunking the next two RailRiders — Derek Dietrich and Kyle Holder — to first load the bases and then allow another run to score.
From there, Houck got Trey Amburgey to ground into a forceout and proceeded to fan Rob Brantly on five pitches to limit any further damage while also ending his night on a more somewhat positive note.
Finishing with a final pitch count of 67 (40 strikes), the 25-year-old hurler now owns an ERA of 3.32, a WHIP of 0.66, and a batting average against of .158 in three starts (10 2/3 innings pitched) with the WooSox since returning the mound on June 17.
In each of those starts, Houck has seen his workload increase from three innings on 45 pitches (26 strikes) to 3 2/3 innings on 58 (38 strikes) to four full innings on 67 pitches (40 strikes) on Tuesday.
“I feel good, feel strong, everything feels normal, and I’m excited for [my next start] Sunday,” Houck told MassLive.com’s Katie Morrison following the WooSox’ 9-7 loss to the RailRiders. “I’ve felt strong since the first outing. I just want to continue to pitch, pitch strong and keep moving forward.”
Houck has not started a major-league game for the Red Sox since April 18. Since making his big-league debut last September, the former first-round pick has posted a 1.98 ERA and 2.92 FIP over six total appearances (five starts) and 27 1/3 innings of work.
At the moment, the Sox have a healthy five-man starting rotation comprised of Nathan Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodriguez, Garrett Richards, Nick Pivetta, and Martin Perez.
That said, Boston’s starters have not been particularly sharp as of late (5.40 starters’ ERA in June), and the club is preparing for a stretch out of the All-Star break next month where they are scheduled to play 18 games in 18 days (all against the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Rays) from July 15 until August 1.
When asked earlier Tuesday afternoon if the team would consider reshuffling its starting rotation or adding a sixth starter — such as Houck — to the mix post-All-Star break, Red Sox manager Alex Cora did not get too specific, but he did seem open to the idea of reinforcements for the rotation in the not so distant future.
“We’ll talk about it. I actually found out yesterday that we play on Thursday after the All-Star break. I thought it was a three-game series and I was actually planning on going to Puerto Rico. But, no, I’m not going to do that now,” Cora said with a grin on his face. “It’s a lot of straight games, a lot of good lineups. We’re talking about that. We’re talking about that.
“August, it’s going to help us with the five off-days,” added Cora. “That’s going to be very important. But, we’re going to need some help at one point. And these guys, they’ve been posting the whole time. So we’ll see where we go with it.”
In addition to Houck building back up in Worcester, Chris Sale is also slated to throw another live batting practice session at Fenway Park.
Cora described Sale, who is on the road back from Tommy John surgery after undergoing the procedure last March, as someone who “is feeling amazing” in between the days he has pitched, so that is certainly an encouraging development on the Red Sox’ note.
As noted by MassLive.com’s Chris Cotillo, if all goes well with Sale on Wednesday and the day after, the ace left-hander could be in line to begin a rehab assignment with a Red Sox minor-league affiliate sometime in July.
Like Houck, Sale represents another potential reinforcement for a Red Sox starting rotation that has left plenty to be desired recently.
(Picture of Tanner Houck: Ashley Green/Telegram & Gazette)