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New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Tanner Houck Takes The Hard Way

Tanner Houck knows where he belongs. . . and he’s willing to fight for it.

In August 2005, a young and extremely promising Red Sox pitcher made his third career start against the Angels in Anaheim. This was a strong Angels team led by prime Vlad Guerrero, one that would go on to win 95 games and the AL West. But on this day, the rookie shut them down, pitching into the sixth inning while allowing just five hits and keeping the opposition off the scoreboard entirely. It was yet another exciting show of talent from a guy everyone was certain would anchor of the Red Sox rotation for years to come.

And it was the last start of his big league career.

A few days after that start, Jonathan Papelbon was moved to the bullpen, as rookie starters frequently are. The move made sense at the time. Curt Schilling, who’d spent most of the season on the injured list and had been working his way back in the bullpen when Papelbon was promoted from AAA Pawtucket, was ready to return to his regular spot in the rotation. And Papelbon, meanwhile, was approaching a high innings count and the team was happy to reduce his workload. But there was never any doubt that Papelbon would continue his development as a starting pitcher in 2006; Theo Epstein was a GM who understood the value of starters versus relievers, and Papelbon, who was ranked the top prospect in the entire Red Sox system, was too good to waste in short, one-inning stints.

But when he showed up in Fort Myers the following February, Jonathan Papelbon forced the Red Sox to change their plans. He’d been good – real good – in the bullpen down the stretch in 2005, striking out 15 hitters in 14 innings while maintaining a 1.29 ERA in the month of September. And as Spring Training began, he told the brass that he actually liked it better out there in the pen. He liked the intensity of the late innings; he liked that being a reliever made him feel like an everyday player.

I don’t doubt that Jonathan Papelbon meant what he said about preferring the bullpen to the starting rotation. But I always suspected that there was something else going on there: I always suspected that Jonathan Papelbon was taking the easy way out. Becoming a starting pitcher in the big leagues is damn hard. You have to refine a repertoire of four different pitches. You have to build up stamina and learn how to fool hitters who’ve already seen you multiple times. You have to be willing to spend years learning on the job before you reach your prime. There was no guarantee that Papelbon would find success in that role. But relieving, on the other hand, was something he knew he would excel at. He could skip the hard work of developing into a starter and move right to the All-Star stage of his career. And indeed, he would make the All-Star team in his first full season in 2006 and finish second in the Rookie of the Year voting.

Jonathan Papelbon probably doesn’t have any doubts about his move to the bullpen. He became rich, and famous, and he somehow even reputationally survived choking out one of the greatest players of the current generation. But I do have doubts about the move — still. I would have really, really loved to see Jonathan Papelbon try to make it work in the single most valuable role in baseball.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Tanner Houck is not Jonathan Papelbon. Tanner Houck desperately wants to be a starter and nothing else. “There’s not ever been any doubt in my mind that I’m not a starter,” he told the press this Spring, when it appeared that he might be one of the odd men out of a crowded rotation. “I definitely feel like I’ve put myself in an even better [position] than I have in years past because before I was more of a two-pitch pitcher, and now I ultimately have four pitches, five pitches that I feel like I can throw at any point.”

But unlike Papelbon, who turned down a spot in a big league rotation that was being freely offered to him, Houck has had to fight and claw to take the ball at the beginnings of games. As he references in the quote above, he faced persistent doubts about his ability to start throughout his minor league development, due to what was perceived as a limited repertoire. And although was given opportunities to start to begin both the 2021 and 2022 seasons, circumstances always seemed to push him back to the bullpen where, like Papelbon, he’s generally been very good, and frequently outstanding.

The questions about his role continued throughout this season — exacerbated by a seeming inability to pitch late into games. But Houck hung in there, thanks to injuries to other pitchers that kept him in the rotation far longer than most people expected. And while his surface level numbers left a lot to be desired, there were indications that he was, in fact, figuring things out. He had added a cutter specifically to target lefties. His expected ERA was a full run lower than his actual ERA. He was showing flashes of what he could be if he kept improving: eight strikeouts against the Angels, six innings of three-hit ball against the Yankees.

And then fate intervened once again. When Tanner Houck was hit in the face by a scary come-backer during a game against the Yankees (a game in which he was cruising), it was reasonable to assume that he might not get another chance to start this year. The broken bones in his face would take months to heal. Then he’d have to rehab. Then he’d have to return to a team fighting for a postseason spot, which might not have the luxury of letting him work his way back into shape in the rotation. And those were just the questions about this season. Houck’s injury could have been not just career-altering, but life-altering. Forget about whether he’d ever be able to make it as a starter, who knew whether he’d ever be able to step back on a mound without being crippled by fear?

Even as he did get the chance to start last night against the Astros, things looked shaky early on. His command was off; he walked back-to-back hitters; and Kyle Tucker hit a ball into the Rio Grande, likely to be destroyed by one of Greg Abbott’s literal death-traps.If you were watching him in the first inning and thinking he wasn’t likely to remain in the rotation for much longer this season, you weren’t alone. And it was heart-breaking, really. All Tanner Houck wants to do is start. He’s willing and eager to put in the hard work that these early developmental seasons require. And his dream keeps getting yanked away from him.

That’s why everything that happened after the first inning was so wonderful to watch.

Houck settled down, facing the minimum over the next two innings and inducing five straight groundball outs. He allowed another run in the fourth, but it came on something of a freak bunt play that didn’t really reflect poorly on him. He came back out for the fifth, facing the heart of the Astros order, and shut them down, keeping the Sox in the game by striking out the very dangerous Yanier Diaz on an absolutely nasty sinker at the bottom of the zone:

Of course, this game will not be remembered for Tanner Houck. It will instead be remembered as the possible deathblow to the 2023 Red Sox, a game when downright ugly defense — this team’s fatal flaw — cost them again, this time against a direct rival for the final Wild Card slot.

There are many questions about the current iteration of the Red Sox that need to be answered this offseason, pitching and defense chief among them. And as Chaim Bloom goes about trying to fix this team — and as pursuits of pitching targets like Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Julio Urias intensify — none of us should be surprised if Tanner Houck once again finds himself without a spot in the rotation when we reconvene in Fort Myers. When that happens, it would be nice to remember this game for Houck gritting his way through five, rather than for Rafael Devers yipping one grounder after another.

It’s not easy to become a big league starter and it won’t get any easier for Houck. But he knows that already, and it sure seems like he’s ready to keep fighting.

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