Andrew Benintendi crushes 2 homers for Royals; former Red Sox outfielder has found success since moving down in Kansas City’s lineup

Andrew Benintendi’s tenure with the Royals did not get off to the best of starts.

After being dealt from the Red Sox to Kansas City as part of a three-team, seven-player trade back in February, Benintendi struggled throughout his first spring training in Arizona, and that coincidentally carried over into the regular season as well.

Through his first 15 games as a member of the Royals, the 26-year-old put up an underwhelming .193/.270/.246 slash line with just three extra-base hits (all doubles), four RBI, three stolen bases, six walks, and 17 strikeouts over 63 plate appearances.

In that time, Benintendi — primarily Kansas City’s No. 2 hitter — failed to barrel up a single ball and posted a dismal wRC+ of 51 to show for his efforts.

As of the morning of April 21, it looked as though the former first-round pick was still on the path towards regression that started during the final month of the 2019 season.

But on that day against the Rays, Benintendi did something he had not done in a while: make significantly hard contact, and he did it twice by barreling up a pair of balls in the fourth and eighth innings.

Both balls the left-handed hitter squared up went for lineouts, but the fact he made more than solid contact on more than one occasion was encouraging — and a harbinger of positive things to come.

Since then, Benintendi has been on a roll as of late. He came into Saturday’s action riding an eight-game on-base streak and undoubtedly put together his best performance of the season to this point against the Twins at Target Field.

Batting seventh and starting in left field for Kansas City, the Cincinnati native went 3-for-4 at the plate with a pair of home runs — his second and third homers of the season, two RBI, and three runs scored while leading his side to an 11-3 victory over Minnesota.

At the time Benintendi hit his first big fly of the afternoon (about 4 p.m. eastern time), Red Sox manager Alex Cora was fielding questions from reporters during his pregame Zoom call at Globe Life Field.

Cora had the Royals-Twins game on the television playing in his office as well.. That being the case because at one point, while talking about Eduardo Rodriguez, he paused, saw Benintendi’s home run, and said, “Look at Benny. He hit a homer.”

Following Saturday’s showing, Benintendi raised his batting average on the season to .262 and his OPS on the season to .757.

Over his last seven games alone, Benintendi is slashing an unworldly .435/.519/.870 with three homers six RBI, seven runs scored, four walks, and one stolen base dating back to April 23.

The success Benintendi has enjoyed as of late can be linked to when he was dropped from second to seventh in the Royals’ lineup on April 19.

The Red Sox moved on from Benintendi over the winter after originally taking the outfielder in the first round of the 2015 amateur draft out of the University of Arkansas.

In exchange for Benintendi, the Sox acquired outfielder Franchy Cordero and two players to be named later from the Royals as well as pitching prospect Josh Winckowski and one player to be named later from the Mets.

Cordero, the only player Boston got back in that trade who has seen any major-league time to this point, came into Saturday’s game against the Rangers sporting a .176/.236/.216 slash line to go along with 26 strikeouts in 55 trips to the plate (47% strikeout rate).

(Picture of Andrew Benintendi and Michael A. Taylor: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Red Sox’ Nick Pivetta works 10-pitch at-bat against Mets ace Jacob deGrom: ‘That probably changed the complexion of the game,’ Alex Cora says

During his weekly call-in appearance on WEEI’s Ordway, Merloni, and Fauria on Wednesday, Red Sox manager Alex Cora teased that starting pitcher Nick Pivetta was a “sneaky good” hitter.

“He’s facing [Jacob] deGrom, but he has nine hits,” Cora said. “Pivetta. Nine hits. Yeah.”

Pivetta, Boston’s starter for their series finale against the Mets at Citi Field on Wednesday, came into the day with nine career hits in 120 career plate appearances from the 3 1/2 seasons he spent with the Phillies.

He had never faced off against deGrom before the third inning of Wednesday’s contest.

There, the 28-year-old led things off by putting together an at-bat that resulted in a strikeout, but was still impressive considering the fact that against a two-time Cy Young Award winner, he got ahead in the count at 2-1 before fouling off six consecutive pitches — four of which were 99-plus mph fastballs.

On the 10th pitch he saw from deGrom, Pivetta whiffed at a 91 mph slider to go down by way of the K. But by the time that happened, the right-handed hitter had raised deGrom’s pitch count from 32 to 42 with just one out in the top half of the third inning.

deGrom, who was fresh off a complete game shutout in his last time out against the Nationals, was only able to go six innings deep in his start against the Red Sox, and it’s safe to say Pivetta’s lengthy at-bat played a role in that.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Cora said following his team’s 1-0 victory over the Mets. “It’s a team sport, right? And everybody has to do their part. If you are hitting in a National League park, you have to do your job. And he helped himself. That was a great at-bat.”

Before his first at-bat on Wednesday, the last time Pivetta had faced any live pitching came on September 28, 2019 in a game against the Marlins. So for deGrom to be the first pitcher he sees in 19 months, that was surely no simple task.

“I was just trying to compete against him, do the best I could, trying to wear down his pitches as much as I could,” Pivetta said during his postgame media availability. “Luckily, it worked out in my favor. Just trying to compete right there. I know that I’m probably not going to get a hit there, it’s deGrom. But, if I can foul off a couple pitches, make him throw a couple balls here and there, and just wear down his pitch count, that’s probably the biggest thing for me in that start. Just wearing him down, and doing the best I can with the job that I have.”

While Pivetta was in the process of making deGrom grind for the first out of the third, Cora and the rest of the Red Sox dugout enjoyed what they were seeing from the lifetime .083/.107/.092 hitter.

“It was great,” said the Sox skipper. “Everybody knew how important that at-bat was. We kept saying, ‘Just foul off five more. Five more pitches.’ I know he wanted to get a hit, but that at-bat probably changed the complexion of the game… It was fun to watch him compete against [deGrom].”

One of those in Boston’s dugout who cheered on Pivetta was Christian Vazquez, who also caught the right-hander on Wednesday.

“That’s a hit for us,” said Vazquez. “That’s a great at-bat. He took like eight pitches, nine pitches, and it was fun. A lot of foul balls.”

Upon returning to his post for the latter half of the third, though, the veteran backstop was told by deGrom himself that the Mets ace was hoping to do to Pivetta what Pivetta did to him at the plate.

“And deGrom, the first at-bat, he told me, ‘I got to do the same thing to him,'” Vazquez recalled with a chuckle. “So it was fun to see that.”

deGrom, who entered Wednesday having gone 6-for-his-first 11 at the plate to start the season, saw a total of 11 pitches in the process of going 0-for-2 against Pivetta.

(Picture of Nick Pivetta: Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Nick Pivetta outduels Jacob deGrom as Red Sox defeat Mets, 1-0, to finish off series sweep

Going into their series finale against the Mets on Wednesday, the Red Sox knew runs would be come to hard by with ace right-hander Jacob deGrom on the hill for New York.

Taking that into consideration, the Sox were also aware that they would not to put forth their best pitching effort to have a chance on Wednesday, and that’s just what they did en route to a 1-0 shutout victory over the Mets at Citi Field to secure the two-game series sweep.

The one run the Boston bats managed to score off deGrom came in the top half of the second inning, when Xander Bogaerts led things off with a hard-hit double and came into score moments later on a one-out RBI double off the bat of Christian Vazquez.

Vazquez’s seventh RBI of the season would prove to be all the scoring the Red Sox would need in this one as Nick Pivetta, Garrett Whitlock, Adam Ottavino, and Matt Barnes combined to toss a two-hit shutout.

Pivetta, making his fifth start of the season, held the Mets to just one hit over five strong innings of work to go along with three walks, one hit batsman, and seven strikeouts on the night. He also worked a 10-pitch at-bat against deGrom in the third.

Whitlock, making his sixth appearance of the season, scattered one hit and one walk while fanning four hitters in the sixth and seventh innings, which led to Ottavino working a 1-2-3 bottom half of the eighth.

Barnes, meanwhile, came on for his second save opportunity in as many days in yet another one-run game and shut the door on the Mets by sitting down Michael Conforto, J.D. Davis, and Dominic Smith on just 12 pitches to preserve the 1-0 victory for his side.

Gonzalez makes leaping play at second

While Ottavino may have faced the minimum three batters in his lone inning of work, he certainly got some defensive help from his second baseman in Marwin Gonzalez.

With one out in the bottom of the eighth, Francisco Lindor laced a 96 mph line drive towards left field that would have put the tying run on base had it gone for a hit.

Instead, Gonzalez, who was playing in the shift and on the outer edge of the infield dirt, left his feet and came up with a dazzling, off-balanced catch to rob Lindor of what could have been an important hit for the Mets.

Next up: On to Texas

After taking both games of this quick interleague-set from the Mets to improve to 16-9 on the season, the Red Sox will head to Globe Life Field inTexas to open up a four-game series against the Rangers that starts on Thursday night.

Left-hander Martin Perez is slated to get the ball for Boston, and he will be opposed by a former teammate in the form of right-hander Kyle Gibson for Texas.

First pitch Thursday is scheduled for 8:05 p.m. eastern time on NESN. Red Sox will be going for their fourth straight win.

(Picture of Nick Pivetta: Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Alex Verdugo (hamstring) returns to Red Sox lineup for finale against Jacob deGrom, Mets

After not starting each of his team’s last two games, Alex Verdugo is back in the Red Sox’ lineup for their series finale against the Mets at Citi Field on Wednesday night.

The 24-year-old gets the start in right field — alongside center fielder Kiké Hernández and left fielder J.D. Martinez — and will bat out of the two-hole, per usual.

Despite not starting Sunday’s game against the Mariners or Tuesday’s contest against the Mets, Verdugo was used as a defensive replacement in the ninth inning of Boston’s 2-1 win over New York.

Verdugo’s brief absence stems from a hamstring cramp he suffered in the fourth inning of Saturday’s loss to Seattle at Fenway Park.

On a line drive off the bat of Sam Haggerty, Verdugo ran in from center field to catch the ball on what looked like a pretty routine play.

Upon catching the ball, though, the young outfielder appeared to be in some discomfort as he gripped the back of his left leg while going back to his position.

He was able to finish Sunday’s game — and even went 2-for-4 with a double — but had not been able to return to Boston’s starting lineup until Wednesday.

“It was actually a very weird play,” Verdugo recalled over the weekend. “Just shuffled my feet, felt something grab a little bit, and just had to make sure that I kept that in mind and loosened it up throughout the game. But no problem.”

The Red Sox will be matched up against an extremely tough opponent in Verdugo’s return to the lineup in the form of Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom.

Through four starts this season, the two-time Cy Young Award winner has posted a miniscule 0.31 ERA and .426 OPS against to go along with a 50:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 29 innings pitched.

In three career starts against the Red Sox, deGrom owns a lifetime 3.32 ERA and .513 OPS against over 19 total innings of work. His most recent start against Boston came last July, an outing in which he yielded two runs over six innings in a game the Mets lost by a final score of 6-5.

Verdugo, meanwhile, has faced off against deGrom six times before in his young career and is 0-for-6 against him.

On the 2021 campaign as a whole, the left-handed hitter comes into play Wednesday sporting a .325/.371/.538 slash line to go along with three home runs and 13 RBI through 22 games and 89 plate appearances.

Here is how the rest of the 15-9 Red Sox will be lining up against deGrom and the 9-9 Mets:

First pitch Wednesday is scheduled for 6:40 p.m. eastern time on NESN.

(Picture of Alex Verdugo: David Berding/Getty Images)

Red Sox taxi squad getting opportunity to do more in second road trip of season

As the Red Sox are one game into their second road trip of the season, the club has five players traveling with them as part of their taxi squad.

These five players — right-handers Eduard Bazardo and Daniel Gossett, catcher Chris Herrmann, infielder Jonathan Arauz, and outfielder Cesar Puello — are not just working out with the major-league team.

To further explain, the Red Sox are currently in Queens for a two-game series against the Mets at Citi Field on Tuesday and Wednesday.

At the same time, Boston’s alternate training site roster is in Brooklyn to take on the Mets’ alternate training site team in a pair of scrimmages at MCU Park.

So, not only are Arauz, Bazardo, Gossett, Herrmann, and Puello working out with the Red Sox while they are at Citi Field, they are also getting to see live pitching in a somewhat-competitive environment across town.

“That’s good for them,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said of Boston’s taxi squad players on Tuesday. “Get big-league money and get at-bats. That’s awesome.”

After wrapping up their two-game set against the Mets Wednesday night, the Sox will head to Texas for a four-game weekend tilt against the Rangers in Arlington.

Once the Red Sox return to Boston on Sunday, the likes of Arauz, Bazardo, Gossett, Herrmann, and Puello will all return to the team’s alternate training site in Worcester, as Major League Baseball’s health and safety protocols for the 2021 season dictate.

(Picture of Jonathan Arauz: Mark Brown Getty Images)

Garrett Richards fans 10 over 7 strong innings, Bobby Dalbec hits first home run of season as Red Sox top Mets, 2-1

Garrett Richards had said last week that his “delivery was off a little bit” following an erratic outing against the Blue Jays in which he walked six batters while only 48 of his 92 pitches went for strikes.

“I just think the delivery was off a little bit tonight,” he had said. “I was kind of fighting it the whole night. And then obviously, couldn’t get my release point under control. Just kind of a combination of things. Nothing that can’t be fixed.”

On Tuesday, Richards put the adjustments he made over the past six days into action and had his best start as a member of the Red Sox to this point as a result.

Over seven strong innings of work against the Mets at Citi Field, the veteran right-hander yielded just one earned run on seven hits and no walks to go along with a season-high 10 strikeouts on the night.

The lone run Richards gave up came in the bottom of the second, when with two outs he served up a solo home run to Jeff McNeil on a heater down the heart of the plate.

Outside of that, Richards was thoroughly impressive in spite of dealing with a fair amount of traffic on the base paths. He did wrap up his evening by retiring the final three Mets he faced in a scoreless seventh inning.

Finishing with a final pitch count of 93 — 70 of which were strikes — the 23-year-old hurler turned to his four-seam fastball 35% of the time he was on the mound Tuesday, inducing 11 swings-and-misses and topping out at 95.8 mph with the pitch.

Able to pick up his first winning decision as a member of the Sox, Richards will go for win No. 2 in his next time out, which should come against the the Rangers in Arlington on Sunday.

Martinez records outfield assist, Vazquez thwarts steal attempt

While Richards was in the process of tossing seven innings of one-run ball Tuesday, he got a boost from his defense on two occasions in his fifth frame of work.

There, Mets catcher James McCann led things off by ripping a line drive to left field.

J.D. Martinez, starting in place of Alex Verdugo (hamstring) in left, fielded the ball on a run and with a quick throw to second base, snuffed out McCann while he was trying to extend a leadoff single into a leadoff double. Marwin Gonzalez, Boston’s second baseman on Tuesday, also made a nice effort to get the tag on McCann in the first place.

After punching out Mets starting pitcher David Peterson for the second out of the inning, Richards surrendered a single to old friend Kevin Pillar. But like McCann, Pillar did not last long on the base paths thanks to Christian Vazquez throwing him out attempting to steal second base.

Andriese and Barnes close it out

In relief of Richards, Matt Andriese — not Adam Ottavino — got the first call out of the Red Sox bullpen in the middle of the eighth, and he needed all of 16 pitches to sit down Pillar, Francisco Lindor, and Dominic Smith in order.

From there, Matt Barnes came on for the ninth and fanned two of the three hitters he faced in a perfect inning of relief to notch his fifth save of the year and preserve the 2-1 victory for his side.

Dalbec hits long-awaited first home run of season

While Richards and Co. did an effective job of keeping the Mets off the board, the Red Sox did not find themselves in many scoring situations on Tuesday, but they took advantage of the opportunities they had.

One of those opportunities arose in the top half of the third inning, when Bobby Dalbec led things off by crushing his first home run of the season 390 feet to right-center field off Peterson.

Fast forward to the sixth, and the top of the lineup got the job done this time when Enrique Hernandez led the inning off with a double and came in to score on a Rafael Devers bloop RBI single moments later.

Devers’ 19th RBI of the season gave the Red Sox a 2-1 lead, which would go on to be Tuesday’s final score.

Next up: Pivetta vs. deGrom

Things will not get any easier for the 15-9 Red Sox on Wednesday, as they will be matched up against two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom, who struck out 15 in a two-hit, complete game shutout bid in his last time out for the Mets against the Nationals.

Nick Pivetta will be tasked with opposing deGrom for Boston. The 28-year-old righty took a no-hitter into the sixth inning of his last start against the Blue Jays, but wound up allowing two runs in a game the Red Sox lost 7-3.

First pitch for Wednesday’s series finale is scheduled for 6:40 p.m. eastern time on NESN.

(Picture of Bobby Dalbec: Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Red Sox pitching prospect Josh Winckowski wraps up solid spring with 3 strong innings of work against Twins

In what was undoubtedly be his last start of the spring, Red Sox pitching prospect Josh Winckowski impressed against the Twins at JetBlue Park on Sunday afternoon.

Making his first start of the Grapefruit League campaign, the 22-year-old right-hander held Minnesota’s lineup — which included the likes of Josh Donaldson, Nelson Cruz, and Byron Buxton — to one earned run on two hits and one walk to go along with one strikeout over three solid innings of work.

That lone Twins tally came on an RBI groundout off the bat of Donaldson in the top half of the third after Willians Astudillo led off the frame with a double and advanced to third on a flyout.

Other than that, Winckowski wrapped up his day by getting Cruz to ground out to short to retire the side in the third.

Finishing with a final pitch count of 51, 33 of which went for strikes, the Ohio native finishes his first spring with the Sox having posted a 3.68 ERA and .154 batting average against over five total appearances spanning 7 1/3 innings pitched.

Boston acquired Winckowski — as well as outfielder Franchy Cordero and two players to be named later — in the three-team trade with the Mets and Royals that saw outfielder Andrew Benintendi land in Kansas City last month.

Listed at 6-foot-4 and 212 pounds, Winckowski was originally selected by the Blue Jays in the 15th round of the 2016 amateur draft out of Estero (Fla.) High School.

He signed with Toronto for $125,000 later that summer and proceeded to put up a 3.35 ERA over 54 appearances (50 starts) and 263 innings of work between rookie-league, Low-A, Class-A, and High-A over the next 3 1/2 seasons.

By that time, Winckowski had emerged as an intriguing prospect within the Jays’ minor-league pipeline, and even after not seeing any in-game at action at all (besides Toronto’s fall instructional league) on account of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, he was one of three pitchers the Blue Jays traded to the Mets in January in exchange for left-hander Steven Matz.

Emerging as New York’s 26th-ranked prospect according to MLB Pipeline in the wake of that trade, Winckowski’s time with the Mets did not last all that long.

As previously mentioned, he, again, was traded — this time to the Red Sox — on February 10, prompting him to jokingly change his Instagram bio to ‘I guess Red Sox.’

Given that he grew up and still resides in the Fort Myers-area, Winckowski going from the Mets to the Sox meant being within closer proximity to his new team’s spring training complex, which led to him captioning his Instagram post reacting to the trade with: ‘Spring training drive won’t be too bad.’

(For what it’s worth, his Instagram bio now reads: ‘Crazy few weeks but I’m pumped to be a Sox.’)

Winckowski arrived at the Red Sox’ Fenway South complex last month as one of 30 initial non-roster invitees at big-league camp. He was ultimately reassigned to the minor-leagues on March 9, but not before leaving a positive first impression on some of his new teammates, like fellow right-hander Matt Barnes.

“I was standing right next to him as he was warming up,” Barnes said about Winckowski following his scoreless outing against the Braves on March 7. “The ball was coming out good. Obviously he had a really good inning. Commanded the ball in the zone. Got ahead of guys, attacked hitters. It looks like he’s got firm, good stuff. It looks like the ball jumps out of his hand — really heavy fastball. That’s what it looks like to me. Obviously I’m not on the other end of it. But watching him from behind in the bullpen warming up and obviously the results speak for themselves in the game today, it looks like he’s got really good stuff.”

Winckowski, who does not turn 23 until June 28, is currently regarded by SoxProspects.com as Boston’s No. 33 prospect, ranking 17th among pitchers in the organization.

FanGraphs‘ Eric Longenhagen wrote this about Winckowski back in January, “Winckowski has a chance to pop in 2021 because he was pitching hurt in 2019 and still got guys out. He looked rusty during instructs but was also up to 97 and added a new splitter to an already decent slider.”

Equipped with a fastball, slider, changeup, and slider in total, Winckowski is projected to begin the 2021 minor-league season with Double-A Portland, though he could earn a promotion to Triple-A Worcester later in the year depending on how he progresses.

The 2021 campaign could prove to be a pivotal one for Winckowski, as he becomes eligible for the Rule 5 Draft for the first time in his career later on this winter.

The Red Sox will need to add the righty to their 40-man roster on or before November 20 of this year if they do not want to risk losing him to another club in the December draft.

(Picture of Josh Winckowski: Billie Weiss/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Rule 5 pick Garrett Whitlock makes Red Sox’ Opening Day roster; ‘His reaction was priceless,’ Alex Cora says

It goes without saying that Garrett Whitlock has been one of the feel-good stories at Red Sox camp throughout the spring.

Selected from the Yankees organization in the Rule 5 Draft over the winter, Whitlock came into camp with the proposition of having to stick on the Sox’ active roster throughout the entirety of the 2021 season or he would otherwise be offered back to his former club.

That may seem like a daunting task for a 24-year-old right-hander who hadn’t pitched in an organized minor-league game since 2019 and was working his way back from Tommy John surgery, but Whitlock has clearly been up to the challenge.

Through four Grapefruit League appearances this spring, the Georgia native has allowed just one earned run on eight hits and no walks to go along with 12 strikeouts over nine total innings of work.

To say Whitlock has been impressive would be an understatement, and he was informed on Thursday that he made the Sox’ Opening Day roster.

“Yesterday we informed Garrett Whitlock that he made the team,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora announced Friday morning. “With everything he’s done throughout camp, not only on the field but also the way he acts, the way he conducts himself. That adds to the equation, and we were very pleased to tell him yesterday.”

Whitlock, a former 18th-round draft pick of the Yankees out of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, underwent Tommy John surgery in July 2019. His recovery from the procedure coincided with the 2020 minor-league season being cancelled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re going to be careful with him, obviously,” Cora said. “He’s a Rule 5 pick and he hasn’t pitched in a while. But everything we’ve seen has been good. So he’ll be with us. It’s another addition, and obviously we have to make decisions in the upcoming days, but I do believe this is a solid bullpen.”

While Cora added that the game will dictate how Whitlock will be used, it does seem likely that the lanky righty — despite having 38 career minor-league starts under his belt — will be used in a swingman role with more of an emphasis on pitching multiple innings out of the bullpen when needed.

The Red Sox are planning on carrying 14 pitchers on their 26-man Opening Day roster. For Cora, informing Whitlock that he would be one of those 14 pitchers was a very enjoyable experience.

“He can be a Rule 5 or a 10-year vet, but the way he threw the ball — you guys saw it — he’s getting better and better,” said the Sox skipper. “It’s one of those that as a manager, as a president of baseball operations, GM, whatever, it’s a great moment when you tell somebody that you’re going to be a big-leaguer.

“His reaction was priceless,” added Cora. “It’s all about him. The organization did their homework and we decided to draft him. From there on, it was up to him and he did everything possible to make the team. And I know he’s not going to stop. Trying to keep getting better, studying the game, doing all the right things for him to get to the next level.”

It’s been a unique journey for Whitlock to get to where he is today being on the cusp of making his major-league debut at some point next month.

The 6-foot-5, 190 pound hurler mentioned earlier this spring that getting “to play a kid’s game for a living” is extremely fun and that he’s looking forward to embracing whichever role he is given with his new team out of the chute.

“My college coach told me the best pitching advice I’ve ever had,” Whitlock said while reflecting on his time at UAB. “And that was: ‘When they hand you the ball to go get outs, you go get outs until they come take the ball away from you.’ And so whatever role that is, that’s always going to be my mindset.”

(Picture of Garrett Whitlock: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

Rule 5 pick Garrett Whitlock shaping up to be potential ‘secret weapon’ for Red Sox pitching staff

It wasn’t too long ago that Garrett Whitlock was at a crossroads in his professional baseball career.

The lanky right-hander — originally selected by the Yankees in the 18th round of the 2017 amateur draft out of University of Alabama — had his 2019 season cut short after undergoing Tommy John surgery that July.

He didn’t know it at the time, but Whitlock had pitched in his last game as a member of the Yankees organization on July 3, 2019 as his recovery from Tommy John coincided with the 2020 minor-league season being cancelled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The deadline for clubs to add Rule 5-eligble players to their 40-man rosters came and went in November, and Whitlock — who was eligible — was not added by New York, meaning he was now eligible for the 2020 Rule 5 Draft.

The following month, the 24-year-old was taken off the board by the Red Sox, breathing new life into his baseball journey as a kid from Snellville, Ga.

By being selected by Boston in the Rule 5 Draft, Whitlock was now tasked with making Boston’s Opening Day roster out of spring training and sticking there for the entirety of the 2021 season or he would otherwise have to be offered back to his former club.

Prior to joining the Red Sox over the winter, Whitlock had primarily served as a starter in his time with the Yankees organization, but given the fact his new team is flush with starting pitching depth, a spot in Boston’s Opening Day rotation was essentially out of the question.

Instead, the 6-foot-5, 190 pound righty was to be made a swingman of sorts who could pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen or make a spot start or two when needed.

He was to still be stretched out over the course of the spring, but not with the intentions of being a fulltime starter once the season begins.

Thus far, handing down that role to Whitlock has netted nothing but positive results at big-league camp in Fort Myers.

Through his first four Grapefruit League appearances, the Georgia native has yielded just one earned run on eight hits, no walks, and 12 strikeouts over nine total innings of work, most recently fanning five Rays hitters over three scoreless, no-hit frames at JetBlue Park on Friday afternoon.

“What Garrett did today, that was impressive,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “But he’s been doing that the whole spring. It’s a good fastball. He’s able to elevate with it late in counts, and it was a great day for him.”

For someone who had not pitched in a competitive environment in nearly two years, the way in which Whitlock has gone about his business on and off the mound has stood out to Cora.

“He was hungry to compete,” said the Sox skipper. “He hasn’t been able to compete in a while. And he’s bought into the concept of the things that we do here, and he’s executing. He’s very talented… He watches every bullpen, he watches the B games, he goes to sim games, and he goes to the dugout when he’s not pitching. That makes you a better baseball player, and in his case it makes him a better pitcher.

“I think it’s that confidence that he has,” Cora added. “First of all, we trust him, right? Because we decided to pick him in the Rule 5 after coming from surgery. Second, with the things that we’re preaching and what he’s doing, he has to feel great. But one thing about him, he’ll show up tomorrow and he’ll ask a question: ‘What can I do better?’ That’s the key of this thing and he’s done that the whole camp.”

Working the sixth through eighth innings of Friday’s contest against the Rays, Whitlock, donning the No. 72, was one of three pitchers who relieved starter Nathan Eovaldi.

A fellow right-hander who knows the ins-and-outs of Tommy John surgery, it’s safe to say Eovaldi has been impressed with what he’s seen from Whitlock so far at camp.

“I’m very excited for him,” Eovaldi said during his in-game media availability. “The first time I saw him throw at spring training, it was early in camp and I was impressed. He’s got a great changeup, he’s got great command, he’s quiet, he’s very quiet and determined to be a part of this team, and he’s going about his business the right way.

“So I’m not surprised with what he’s been able to do out there on the field just because of the way he’s handling himself in and around the clubhouse and out there in the bullpen,” the fireballer added. “He’s kind of our secret weapon right there, so he’s looking great.”

Whitlock himself is not taking anything for granted this spring. He explained on Friday how undergoing Tommy John surgery changed his perspective on multiple facets of his life — including his faith — and how he is just overjoyed to be playing baseball for a living.

“When you have an operation like Tommy John, it’s never given that you’re going to play again,” he said. “I promised to myself that if I was going to get a second chance and I was going to be back out on the field, I would never take a day for granted again. Because every little kid’s dream is to play professional baseball, and I don’t care if it’s in the [Gulf Coast League] level or the major-league level, I get to play a kid’s game for a living. It’s so much fun.”

Given how he has performed this spring, Whitlock, as previously mentioned, is a sure bet to make the Sox’ Opening Day roster as a swingman/hybrid-type reliever who can also start when necessary.

Regardless of what role he undertakes beginning April 1, though, Whitlock will just be going out there to do his job, or in other words, get outs. That is something that was drilled into him during his time at UAB.

“My college coach told me the best pitching advice I’ve ever had,” he recalled. “And that was: ‘When they hand you the ball to go get outs, you go get outs until they come take the ball away from you.’ And so whatever role that is, that’s always going to be my mindset.”

(Picture of Garrett Whitlock: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

Adam Ottavino fans a pair in Red Sox debut, says closing out games is not ‘a must’ for him, but would be something he would ‘definitely embrace’

A little less than two months after being acquired in a surprising trade with the Yankees, Adam Ottavino made his Red Sox debut against the Braves at JetBlue Park on Wednesday afternoon.

Getting the call for the top half of the fourth inning, the veteran right-hander retired three of the four hitters he faced while picking up his first two strikeouts — one looking, one swinging — of the spring.

For Ottavino, Wednesday’s outing marked the first time he had thrown in front of fans in nearly a year, and it also marked the first time he threw in a game with Christian Vazquez behind the plate.

“I felt pretty good out there,” Ottavino said of his performance. “It was exciting to have people in the crowd again and throw to Vazquez for the first time in a game. So that type of stuff was good to get out of the way. And physically it felt good, so that was the bonus.”

As he prepares to embark upon his first season with the Red Sox, Ottavino has the chance to emerge as the club’s closer coming out of camp. He is currently competing with fellow right-handed reliever Matt Barnes for that job.

Over the course of his 10-year major-league career, the 35-year-old hurler has only notched 19 lifetime saves, a majority of which came with the Rockies from 2015-2018.

The closer role is one that Ottavino hasn’t had to undertake in quite a while, but it is not one he would shy away from if given the opportunity to do so with his new team.

“It would be great,” he said when asked how it would feel to close out games for the Red Sox. “The last time I had the job was right before I got hurt in 2015 and a little bit in 2016 when I came back. It was exciting. I really enjoyed it. It’s not something that I feel like is a must for me, but it is something I would definitely embrace. If Alex [Cora] gives me the ball in the ninth, I’ll definitely be pumped up about that.”

For his career, the former Cardinals, Rockies, and Yankees reliever owns a lifetime 2.76 ERA and .596 OPS against when pitching in the ninth inning of games.

Barnes, meanwhile, has posted a 4.03 ERA and .690 OPS against when working in the ninth inning over the course of his seven-year career with Boston.

Red Sox manager Alex Cora has gone as far to say that there is no frontrunner in the team’s closer competition, but the competition between Ottavino and Barnes itself is interesting due to the fact that neither have extensive closing experience and both are slated to become free agents at the end of the 2021 season.

Despite not having too much experience as a closer, though, Ottavino already seems to know what adjustments he will need to make if he does indeed win the job out of spring training.

“I think the biggest thing is you’re pretty much starting clean 80% of the time,” said the Brooklyn native. “You might finish off the eighth once in a while, but for the most part you’re starting clean in the ninth. You know exactly what it’s going to take to get the job done. Whether you’re up by one or up by three or whatever the case may be. So you kind of pitch to the scoreboard a little bit in that way and just try to do your job for the team.

“I’m sure I would get a lot more pinch-hitters — probably lefties, that sort of thing — but I’ve done it before,” he added. “I think the biggest thing is just attacking that first guy and putting yourself in a good position for success.”

The reason Ottavino specifically brought up the possibility of facing left-handed pinch-hitters is because of the struggles he has had against lefty bats in general since making his big-league debut for St. Louis in 2010.

Last season alone, across 24 appearances out of the Yankees bullpen, the Northeastern University product allowed left-handed hitters to slash .294/.458/.353 off of him.

This aspect of his game, not his ability to close out games, seems to take precedence for Ottavino as free agency looms.

“I have no idea what they’re looking at these days in terms of roles and stuff like that,” he said. “But I do think it would benefit me to get a full season in of facing as many lefties as possible so I can put that narrative to bed and show that I can dominate both sides. That would probably be a bonus, but beyond that, I think regardless of role I’m looking to put together a great season. Not only for myself, but for the team.”

Ottavino, who primarily relies on his sinker-slider combination to dominate his competition, has quickly become one of the more intriguing pitchers — if not players — the Red Sox have on their major-league roster.

“He’s just very smart, a great communicator,” Cora said of Ottavino Wednesday. “Him and Christian [Vazquez] were talking about sequences and pitch shapes in the dugout. Like I said before, we’re happy that he’s with us. He’s a great addition to our bullpen and is a guy that we trust.”

Right-handed pitching prospect Frank German, who New York included in the trade that sent Ottavino to Boston, also made his Red Sox debut against the Braves on Wednesday.

The 23-year-old maneuvered his way around a leadoff single and two out-walk while striking out one in a scoreless top of the eighth to pick up his first hold of the spring.

(Picture of Adam Ottavino: Mark Brown/Getty Images)