SAN DIEGO — Even if he has pitched like the staff ace for most of the season, Red Sox lefty Eduardo Rodriguez has too much respect for his rotation mates to believe he’s the best pitcher on the staff.
Rodriguez, who threw seven shutout innings in an 11-0 win over the Padres on Friday night, is now 15-5 with a 3.92 ERA on the season. With Chris Sale done for the year, David Price still hurt and both Rick Porcello and Nathan Eovaldi struggling, Rodriguez has become the most reliable starter on the staff.
The 26-year-old lefty downplayed the notion that he had become the staff ace.
“I don’t think I’m the ace of the team,” Rodriguez said. “I have three other guys in front of me, even four with Nate. Those guys have way more time than me and they’ve been doing it for a long time. I just feel part of the rotation and I’ll go out there and pitch.”
Even if he’s being humble, there’s no denying that Rodriguez has made incredible strides this season. After entering the year as a question mark behind potential Hall of Famer Sale, former Cy Young winners Price and Porcello, and Eovaldi, a postseason hero, Rodriguez has overtaken his mentors and solidified his billing as a top-of-the-rotation starter.
“It means a lot to the organization,” manager Alex Cora said. “We know the talent.”
Like the rest of the rotation, Rodriguez struggled in March and April, posting a 6.16 ERA in his first six starts. What he has done since then has been remarkable, as he has pitched to a 3.39 ERA in 21 starts, in which the Sox are 16-5.
Rodriguez has avoided the injured list for the first time since 2015 and, in turn, exceeded his previous career-high in innings by a wide margin. His seven-inning outing put him at 160 2/3 for the season, well past his previous high of 137 1/3 from two years ago.
“After I finish the season, it’s when I’ll look at the numbers and see where I finished,” Rodriguez said. “I just want to make 30 good starts and throw 200 innings, which I’ve never done before. That’s something in the back of my head right now that (I) have six or seven more starts. That’s the goal.”
Rodriguez was dominant in the first half of last season, posting a 3.44 ERA in 19 starts before suffering an ankle injury while covering first base shortly before the All-Star break. He fell out of Cora’s favor after returning, with the manager questioning the lefty’s game plan and ultimately demoting him to the bullpen for the postseason.
Rodriguez seemed to hit a low point in the ALDS, when he was late covering first base on a key play in an eventual Game 2 loss to the Yankees. Cora said after the game he wanted the lefty to be more accountable, a rare instance of the first-year manager criticizing one of his players publicly.
Just a few weeks later, necessity forced the Red Sox into starting Rodriguez in Game 4 of the World Series at Dodger Stadium. He dominated the Dodgers until giving up a three-run homer to Yasiel Puig in the sixth inning but showed enough for Cora and his staff to head into spring training with renewed confidence.
“I’m his biggest critic,” Cora said. “I’ve pushed him to be great because I know he can be great. For him to do the things he’s doing, it’s pretty special.”
Rodriguez has matured, showing improvements in his conditioning, preparation and work ethic throughout the season. Instead of being the little brother on a staff filled with veteran pitchers, he has carved out his own identity and climbed out of the shadow of Price, Sale and Porcello.
Still, the lefty isn’t taking anything for granted. He’s happy to take a backseat to four starters who have a combined two Cy Young awards, 12 All-Star appearances and 450 wins.
“I’ve been getting a lot of recommendations from them every time I go out there,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t feel like the ace like the other four guys we have. They have way more time than me. Cy Youngs, All-Star Game. They are the real aces.”