Tanner Houck’s first career strikeout certainly surprised Jesus Aguilar, who swung and missed at a 96 mph fastball on the outside corner. Aguilar looked around in mild bewilderment before nodding in unexpected approval.
To end the fourth, Houck went to old reliable, his slider. With two runners on, he caught Miguel Rojas looking at strike three to win a tough at-bat, and Rojas was so frustrated with himself that he slammed his bat on the ground.
Talk about a strong first impression.
Jackie Bradley Jr.’s RBI double in the sixth helped push the Red Sox to a 2-0 victory over the Marlins on Tuesday night, but Houck was the story of the night. In his major-league debut, the 24-year-old couldn’t have been much better, as he pitched five shutout innings, allowed just two hits and struck out seven as he became the first pitcher since Eduardo Rodriguez in 2015 to win his first career start.
“Definitely right now kind of high on life,” Houck said afterward. “Getting that win was truly amazing. ...
“The reality is definitely everything I could have imagined. Especially now, getting to pitch for my cause and my charity is definitely a bonus on top of doing this experience. It was ... I can’t even put it into words.”
For at least one night, the Red Sox, who have struggled mightily to find quality and just hope in their pitching staff, could dream about a bright future with their 2017 first-round pick.
When his night was over, Houck could be seen by television cameras smiling and high-fiving teammates Xander Bogaerts and Christian Vazquez in the dugout.
Houck did his thing, showcasing an electric fastball that topped out at 96 mph and a nasty slider that had made him a Top 10 prospect in the Red Sox’ system. With less than two weeks left in the season and after the Red Sox had sent 14 different starting pitchers through their first 48 games of the season, it made you wonder what took so long for him to get a chance.
“The composure,” Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke said of what impressed him. “Command was really good. Just got ahead of people with strikes. Really good to see. He looked calm out there. That was fun watching it. ...
“He’s got great movement on his fastball, that’s the biggest thing. He’s got a sinker that runs when it’s up some. He has a four-seamer. He’s come up with a cutter. And the slider’s really good. You saw to the right-handers, he threw a lot of great sliders down and away that they had trouble picking up. So, good mix of pitches. And Vazqy did a real nice job with him.”
Houck’s most impressive moment of the night might have come in the fourth, when in a scoreless game and two outs, he put two runners on with a pair of walks. Rojas, a .361 hitter this season, drew a 3-2 count before Houck froze him with the slider to end the threat. In his first high-leverage, high-pressure situation, Houck passed a big test.
“Definitely big,” Houck said. “Punching him out there was a big moment and definitely set me up to be able to go back out there for the fifth.”
Houck will certainly get a chance to build on his debut performance in what should be something of an audition for a spot in the team’s 2021 starting rotation. With 11 games to go, he’ll likely get two more starts, with the next one possibly coming this weekend against the Yankees.
“That’s why we have him pitching right now is to see what he’s like and see if he would fit in next year, or what we think of him,” Roenicke said. “So, it’s good to have him out there, and yes, if we could get him a couple more, that would be great. So, we’ll see what happens, but what a great start for him. When you want to make an impression, he made an impression on all of us.”
For now, at least, Houck will always be able to look back on his major-league debut with fond memories.
“It’s a moment I’ll look back on for the rest of my life and be able to fully embrace it,” Houck said. “As time goes on, I’ll get to appreciate it even more. Definitely it’s more executing pitches. Up here, you’ve got a fine line and I know that and I’ve got to continue to hone in. I definitely didn’t execute all my pitches to the best of my ability. I left some a little bit more middle, I got lucky enough that I got the ball back sometimes. Yeah, I’ll definitely be able to take it all back and embrace it all and grow from this.”