CLEVELAND — This week’s three-game series at Progressive Field wasn’t the first time Nathan Eovaldi has effectively had a start taken away.
Flash back to Game 3 of the World Series in Los Angeles. The Red Sox right-hander was the favorite to have the ball the following night at Dodger Stadium, but he wound up doing so ahead of time in the 12th inning of what turned out to be a classic. Eovaldi was still on the mound some two hours later when Max Muncy launched a walkoff home run to left-center field, ending the longest postseason game by any measure in Major League Baseball history.
Boston’s 3-2 loss in 18 innings was a contest that transcended the final score. Eovaldi was immediately elevated to the ranks of Red Sox legends for firing 97 pitches in relief. His impending free agency was put on the back burner in the name of team sacrifice, and Eovaldi’s peers to a man lauded his contribution even in defeat.
Boston claimed its fourth championship of the century two nights later. Eovaldi was officially credited with two holds and a loss against the Dodgers, but his four-year, $68-million deal reached with the Red Sox in the offseason was the tangible payoff. Boston turned to him again each of the last two days while making a desperate bid to save the 2019 campaign, one that included a 5-1 win over Cleveland on Wednesday afternoon.
“You just find a way,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “We’ve been saying all along we’re in this position because we haven’t played well, but we’ll see what we’ve got the next month and a half.”
Boston is back to five games over .500 and 7½ games behind the Rays for the second American League wild card spot. The Red Sox have 39 games to finish — one suspended in the 10th inning with the Royals, the others from a fresh start — and sense they might be living on borrowed time already.
“Bullpen day today if you want to call it that,” said Xander Bogaerts, who cracked a pair of home runs. “Those guys did a great job. They kept us in the game.”
Brian Johnson finished just 2 2/3 innings in what was the latest short start by a Boston pitcher. Cora’s quickening hook has been out of necessity with his team still feeling the sting of an eight-game losing streak that spilled into August. Six different relievers combined on 19 outs and welcomed the deserved rest that accompanies Thursday’s off day.
“We were able to battle against a team that’s been playing great baseball,” Eovaldi said. “We were able to come out on top.”
Eovaldi returned from a right elbow injury July 22 and allowed at least one earned run in five of his first eight relief appearances, but his last three have been scoreless over 3 2/3 innings. He entered in anything but comfortable circumstances against Cleveland — two one-run games, once in the bottom of the eighth. Eovaldi allowed just one hit and struck out three, summoning the command of his pitches that made him a trusted weapon out of the bullpen last October.
“I know how to pitch out of the rotation,” Eovaldi said. “I feel like I’m getting the hang of throwing out of the bullpen — when to bounce the breaking ball and when not to. Just coming in and trying to attack hitters.”
The Red Sox bullpen allowed just four men to reach safely Wednesday, and no member of the Indians touched third base after the third inning. Marcus Walden and Josh Taylor recorded single outs to end the third and fifth while Eovaldi, Darwinzon Hernandez, Andrew Cashner and Brandon Workman each handled three outs or more.
Is this sort of usage sustainable? Boston has a host of off days coming up the rest of the season, which builds in some rest for each of its relievers. Eovaldi and Hernandez could be used as openers and David Price (left wrist) has started playing catch after a cortisone shot to treat a cyst.
“We’re about to find out, honestly,” Cora said. “We put ourselves in a bad position, but we understand that we have a shot to make some ground. The season is not over.”