Today, Red Sox fans received a real treat: Tanner Houck making his season debut against Matt Harvey and the Orioles. If the name Matt Harvey sounds familiar, it’s because it should be. A long time ago, in a galaxy that seems very far away, Harvey was one of the best pitchers on the planet. From 2012-2015, Harvey pitched 427 innings of 2.53 ERA baseball, with excellent peripherals to match.
From 2016 on, however, he has been a very different pitcher. Since then, he has compiled a 5.82 ERA in 411.2 innings of work. Gone was his stuff that missed bats, gone was his velocity that gave him an edge. Gone was his ability to avoid walks and dingers.
Facing him is Tanner Houck, a man who some see a little Chris Sale in. The one flaw in Houck’s profile has been his lack of a true third pitch. His fastball is good. His slider is otherworldly. If Houck ever develops a third pitch (and he is working on a splitter, which looks below average so far) he has the potential to be a true monster.
The first hit the Red Sox tallied on the day was aided by the sun, as J.D. Martinez laced a ball into left field, that Austin Hays just lost in the sun. Martinez walked into second with a double, becoming the new hits leader on the Red Sox. Nobody was able to bring him home, but it’s nice to see J.D. making solid contact again, if Martinez can bounce back to 2018 or 2019 levels, the Red Sox will have a fun year.
For his part, Houck was doing just fine without a third pitch. In the first inning he got Anthony Santander to strike out swinging, and in the second he struck out the side, as Rio Ruiz, Austin Hays, and Maikel Franco went down in order. If Houck can repeat his end of season form early on, I’m not sure the Red Sox will be able to send him back down again.
In the bottom of the 2nd, Red Sox fans received their first look at what could be a big part of the Red Sox strategy in 2021, as Marwin Gonzalez reached first on a single, and then promptly stole second base. While Gonzalez is not the fastest man, he was able to force a throw from Pedro Severino that was off the mark. Will the Red Sox stay aggressive on the basepaths in 2021?
Bobby Dalbec struck out, as he is likely to do a lot this season. This put a runner on second base with two outs for new Red Sox outfielder Franchy Cordero, who is a player I have tabbed for a huge season. His issue has never been talent, as he boasts both rare power and rare speed in the same frame. Injury issues have limited his playing time. He has never had a chance to play deep into any MLB season as a result, capping out at 40 games played in 2018. While Cordero grounded out to end the inning, it’s nice to just see him out there.
Houck continued to roll. He struck out Freddy Galvis for his fourth straight strikeout. The streak ended via a Pedro Severino bloop, but the stuff looked impressive early on nonetheless. This momentary setback was just that, a setback. Houck came back for Trey Mancini. That’s six strikeouts in three innings pitched.
I have one complaint to levy about the Red Sox, defensively. Rafael Devers needs to move off of third base. While Devers has the range to play third base, and has made some absolutely baffling plays, he absolutely should not be in a position where he is required to throw the ball often. Through the first two games of the season, he has looked rather poor, to nobody’s surprise. His error in the fourth inning caused a pretty big shift in winning probability. Instead of ending the inning, Devers throw was off the mark, and flew over Marwin Gonzales’ head, allowing the runner heading to 2nd to advance to third. One pitch to the backstop later, and there was a runner on second and third with two outs for Maikel Franco. Naturally Franco slapped a single that scored two runs. 2-0 Orioles after three and a half innings.
Tanner Houck, Filthy 83mph Back Door Slider. pic.twitter.com/yV4JEckTmt— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 3, 2021
Unfortunately for the Red Sox, however, Matt Harvey reached back into the old time machine and brought some of his best stuff in years. For three innings, all hope looked lost.
Then the fourth inning happened. J.D. Martinez (with his third hit of the year!?) and Xander Bogaerts both got singles. Devers moved both guys over into scoring position on a weak dribbler up the line that was functionally a sacrifice play. Marwin Gonzales gave a ball a ride to the deepest part of the park, but had to settle for a sacrifice fly that scored the first Red Sox run of the season.
Pedro Severino hit a double in the next half, and Cedric Mullins grounded out to push him over, and just like that, all the Red Sox hard work last inning was on the precipice of being wiped out. With the infield in, Xander Bogaerts took charge, broke to his right, and snagged an absolute bullet on the ground. This kept Severino frozen at third while Bogaerts threw over to 1st. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make lightning strike twice. Another one came his way and he was just a step too slow, as the runner was safe at first, and the runner on third scored. 3-1 Orioles.
The Red Sox began their rally to try and take back the run that the Orioles took back. Kevin Plawecki snuck a ball through the middle of 2nd and short, and Enrique Hernández drew a 4 pitch walk, to give the Red Sox a scoring opportunity for either of Alex Verdugo or J.D. Martinez. While Verdugo flew out, this allowed Martinez a chance. Martinez laced a ball straight into Matt Harvey. At first it looked like it could have been caught, but it bounced just enough off of Harvey to sneak the ball by him. Martinez reached at first, and Plawecki made a heads-up move, rounding third and scoring easily in the confusion. With runners on first and second, the Orioles made their move, removing Matt Harvey and bringing in Adam Plutko to get the final out, which he got inducing a Bogaerts ground out to third.
No matter how you slice it, this was a disappointing performance off of Matt Harvey. Even with deader baseballs and a strong wind coming in from left, you want more than 2 runs in 5 innings off of Matt Harvey with this offense.
On the other end, Houck was also removed after 5 innings, and it was not a disappointing performance by him. While the line will read as 5 IP, 6 H, 3 R (two of which were “earned”), 1 BB, and 8 ks, it isn’t really a fair snapshot of how he pitched. He looked borderline unhittable for half the afternoon. When he did give up hits they were not off hard contact. Arguably all three runs scored as a result of awful defense. Houck did his best, striking out 8 of the batters he faced, but he can’t make defensive plays for Devers.
Red Sox's Tanner Houck threw 32 four-seam fastballs, 31 sliders, 18 two-seam fastballs and three splitters.— Christopher Smith (@SmittyOnMLB) April 3, 2021
His fastball topped out at 96.3 mph and averaged 94.7 mph.
Only one ball put into play against his slider. https://t.co/CRvrO72jGl
In the 7th, Darwinzon Hernandez made his season debut. Hernandez enters the year as the Sox fourth or fifth best reliever, in the hopes that he can take the next step forward, and avoid walking the park. While he didn’t walk guys in his outing today, he was a touch too hittable. After a couple of hits by Freddy Galvis and Cedric Mullins, Trey Mancini drove in a runner on a sacrifice fly. In his one inning of work he gave up two hits, a run, and struck out two.
Phillips Valdez also pitched, and did well in his two innings of work. While he was a fringe player who only barely made the team, it is still encouraging to see the bottom of the bullpen bring it early on. If the offense and defense ever get on the same page, this team will be fun to watch.
The Red Sox entered the bottom of the 9th down by 2 runs, with Marwin Gonzalez, Bobby Dalbec, and Franchy Cordero tabbed to get the action started. Marwin Gonzalez got a lucky break as he got hit in the toe to get a free pass to first base. With Bobby Dalbec standing in, and a chance to tie the game, he was swinging for the fences from the outset. The Orioles had a clear plan of attack, as everything was down and away. After getting ahead 0-2 three straight pitches went a mile outside. Then a fourth also went a mile outside, and Bobby Dalbec took the second free pass of the inning.
The Red Sox now had a runner on first and second with no outs, and one of the newest Red Sox at the plate in Franchy Cordero. Cordero drove the count up, getting it to a 3-1 count, before taking a massive cut. Had it made contact, I fully believe the game would have ended there. He didn’t. Then he swung and missed on the next pitch too, to give César Valdez his first out of the inning.
Christian Vázquez came in as a pinch hitter for Plawecki and launched a missile on the first pitch that landed directly in Austin Hays glove for the second out of the inning. With the game down to the final out, there was only one man who could prolong it, Enrique Hernández. It was not to be. A weak ground out to second ended the Sox chances of a comeback, as the Sox fall for the second day in a row, 4-2.
The Red Sox and Orioles will finish this series tomorrow, at the same time, and same place: 1:10 PM ET. Let’s hope for a few more runs for the good guys (that’s the Red Sox, in case there was any confusion).