The Red Sox did what they needed to do on Friday, coming out ahead of the Nationals and, with a little help, setting themselves up for the possibility to clinch on Saturday. While it’s much more likely things will come down to what happens Sunday, the potential still exists for a celebration Saturday night. And of course, first and foremost they need a win in the late afternoon down in the nation’s capital.
One thing we know about the Red Sox right now is that they are really leaning on their pitching, and in particular they’re leaning on their starting pitching. It’s a flip from where they’ve been most of the year, but during this latest stretch they’ve actually gotten a bunch of mostly good starts, just bad offense and inopportune relief pitching. And this fact puts them in a little bit of a tougher position on Saturday, because they don’t really have a true starting pitcher ready to go.
Alex Cora and the Red Sox have — rightfully, I should add — been using their off-days to their advantage and rolling with what has amounted to a four-man rotation. The issue is that the off-days have run out, and now they don’t have any of those four on regular rest. That leaves them without a clear and obvious starter for this big game on Saturday. So what can we expect to see?
Well, first and foremost Tanner Houck is going to be the guy to pitch the most innings in this game. Or, at least, that will be the plan. Obviously things don’t always go how you write them up. But Houck was the fifth starter before transitioning to the bullpen for this stretch, and he’s got a few days rest. The righty last pitched on Tuesday, tossing a couple of innings in Baltimore. I wouldn’t expect him to be ready to go six innings or anything, but really that’s not something Houck does even when he is fully rested. The ideal outcome the Red Sox are looking for is probably to get four innings from him, and they’d settle for three.
But if I were to put on my Alex Cora hat, it seems most optimal in my eyes not to use Houck as an actual starter, but as a bulk guy after an opener. This generally seems like a good idea for someone like Houck, who has trouble making it three times through the lineup. If you put someone in front of him for an inning, you can theoretically use Houck to get you through the fifth inning, which, while not ideal, can certainly work.
And it makes even more sense if you can get a lefty to open in front of him. I think that’s something that works just generally for Houck since, with his splitter still a work in progress, he’s a better matchup against right-handed hitting. Using a left-handed opener, especially in a situation like this where the Nationals can’t easily guess the pitching plan, potentially puts a couple extra righties in the lineup. And then there’s also this guy named Juan Soto in the Nationals lineup, and giving Houck one fewer matchup against him will do everyone a world of good. There’s also Josh Bell, who is a switch hitter and has no discernible splits this season, but over his career is someone who is much better against righties. Using a left-handed opener to get through both of those guys — typically the three and four hitters in this Nationals lineup — would make a lot of sense.
So then the next question becomes which lefty to use, and there are really two options. After being used last night, and given his major control issues, Darwinzon Hernandez is out for me. That leaves Austin Davis and Martín Pérez. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Davis is the better pitcher, though there’s a conversation to be had about just how good he really is given how little Cora uses him. But we’ll save that for another day.
The case for Davis is that he is better and gives the Red Sox a better chance of having a zero on the scoreboard next to Washington through one inning. The case for Pérez is that he is more used to starting a game, and he could potentially give a few innings instead of just the one. In theory, the further you can push Houck’s first inning in this game back, the better. This would also leave Davis as a late-game possibility, though again Cora has not really used him much in that role. The flip side is there is greater risk to fall behind early, because Pérez just isn’t as effective.
So to me, the path that makes the most sense is to use Davis to start off the game and hopefully at least get through the first four batters. That should bring you into the second, at which point you turn to Houck and at least try to get through the fifth. After that, it’s largely a normal game, and I would likely go to Garrett Richards to try and get two innings after that. The other big swing point in this game could be the potential return of Garrett Whitlock. If he’s back, he could theoretically give you two more innings to close it out.
Of course, with all of that being said, the Red Sox offense could simply wake up as well and make the pitching an afterthought. On second though, let’s go with that plan.