I think there is a lot of groupthink on the internet generally speaking — I’m not breaking any news here — and certainly among my peers of people who talk about baseball on the internet. But one place I seem to diverge a bit is with respect to a player’s legacy. After last night’s game I saw people with whom I typically agree poo-pooing the idea of a legacy in general. Now granted, a lot of that was around the idea that one game could tarnish Gerrit Cole’s and I think that’s fair. He was bad on Tuesday, but he’s an elite pitcher who will finish in the top five in Cy Young voting in each of his first two years with the Yankees and each of the last four years overall.
But I don’t much care about the legacy of Cole. I only bring that up because I do believe in the idea of a player’s legacy, and it is in fact one of the reasons I love sports. The word narrative gets thrown around with negative connotation frequently, and for good reason as they are often hijacked for bad faith sports arguments, but at the end of the day a lot of sports is indeed built around narratives. They are an entertainment product, and everyone squeezes that entertainment out in different ways. For me, perhaps the biggest form of entertainment I get is watching a player emerge from being just another player — whether it be as a draft pick all the way to a free agent signing — to something else entirely.
Nathan Eovaldi has reached the something else entirely plateau. We’ve been watching the legend of Eovaldi grow in this city for a few years now, and he put an exclamation point on that résumé on Tuesday night. On the biggest non-World Series stage possible — even if it was just the first round of the playoffs, it was a win-or-go-home game against the Yankees, who had their ace on the mound — he shoved. Alex Cora had a relatively quick hook, which is to be expected in this environment, but Eovaldi dominated for his 5 1⁄3 innings, allowing just one run on a Pesky’s Pole homer while striking out eight without issuing a walk.
When the stakes were at their highest, Eovaldi brought his game to another level, which is saying something because he’s been at a high level all year and will receive a good number of Cy Young votes next month. And of course, this is not the only time we’ve seen him perform so well on this stage. While he didn’t win any series MVPs, he would have won the playoffs MVP in 2018 if that was a thing. We all remember his defining moment of six innings in relief, but he was nails all postseason long that year whilst moving back and forth between the rotation and bullpen. And even in the run ups to those postseasons, whether it be after being acquired by Boston in the summer of 2018 or the second half this season when the team desperately needed some sort of stabilizing force, he’s been money.
What really struck me the most about Tuesday’s game was just how different seemingly every one of Eovaldi’s pitches were, and how unafraid he was to add in new and different wrinkles on this kind of stage. A pitcher that has five legitimate pitches that he will use at any moment is hard enough to fight off as a hitter, but when he’s also changing arm angles and quick pitching and disrupting tempo, it feels impossible. And it’s also much easier said than done to do all of that while still filling up the strike zone and missing bats.
Obviously the postseason is not over, and narratives are constantly shifting. He will still get at least one more start in this playoff run, and again will be going up against a former employer. But even if it’s just a narrative, we know what he’s done when the team has needed him the most, and we know how he reacts to pressure. I’ve said before when talking about Alex Verdugo that we typically think we know more about a player’s ability to perform in the clutch than we actually do, and maybe that’s the case here. But ultimately it doesn’t matter if Eovaldi actually is built differently or if he’s just had his great games under the postseason light. What matters is the results, and for Eovaldi they continue to be great in the biggest games, and with each passing performance he only grows his legend and his place among the best big-game performers in the Boston sports pantheon.