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Friday, September 20, 2019

In lost season, Red Sox found a new ace: Eduardo Rodriguez

Seen often this season: E-Rod gets a hand (AP)
Earlier this summer, Eduardo Rodriguez was asked what he attributed to his rapidly rising star on the Red Sox pitching staff. In slow but thoughtful English, which has improved along with his game, the Venezuelan left-hander said that rather than trying to emulate the three Cy Young Award winners who preceded him in Boston's starting rotation, he was now focusing more on himself -- on being the best he could be as a pitcher.

E-Rod's insights, which seemed astute at the time, have grown increasingly sagelike as this hugely disappointing Red Sox season has continued.

Those three Cy Young winners who helped Boston to the 2018 World Series title -- Chris Sale, David Price, and Rick Procello -- have all fizzled due to injuries and ineffectiveness. Rodriguez, meanwhile, has quietly put up the kind of numbers that traditional fans and the analytics crowd can all appreciate.

If you still believe that victories by a starting pitcher have relevance, E-Rod is your man. His 18-6 record after yesterday's victory over the Giants would look just as impressive in 1990 as it does today, and with two starts left he still has a shot at 20 wins -- a magic figure that has largely gone the way of the dodo and $1.50 bleacher seats.

His Twitter feed says it all: E-Rod is PUMPED!

Rodriguez is no Jake deGrom when it comes to ERA, but his 3.53 mark was good for 7th in the American League entering tonight despite the hardship of being a lefty who calls Fenway Park home. He has kept his team in games all season, and the Red Sox are 24-8 in his 32 starts. In games started by anybody else, they are 56-64.

Some people cite Rodriguez's tremendous run support in downplaying his success. For much of the season, Boston scored more often with E-Rod on the mound than any other MLB pitcher. But that is certainly not his fault; in fact, it's a trend any pitcher would covet. The aim of the game is to score the most runs and win. When Rodriguez pitches, the Red Sox usually do both.

Even more impressive is this: During the long, slow march to the end of Boston's championship reign, as his rotation-mates have floundered and flamed out, Rodriguez has shone brighter. He is 10-2 in his last 15 starts, with a 2.21 ERA and 6.2 WAR -- marks that would earn him heavy Cy Young consideration of his own were he to continue them over a full campaign. He's got something to prove, and it shows.

No one is going to confuse Rodriguez with Sale when it comes to strikeouts, but not trying to mow everybody down seems to agree with E-Rod too. He's no slouch in the department -- with 199, he ranks 9th in the AL -- but given the choice between heat and control, he seems content on the latter. Pitching to contact means quicker outs, which is keeping him in games longer.

Home and away, Rodriguez has caught on.

This might be the single most important change in Rodriquez circa 2019. Last year, when he went a solid 13-5 with a 3.82 ERA, E-Rod was known as a six-inning pitcher. This season he has gone 7+ innings eight times, and is 6th in the league in innings pitched. The decision to limit the workload for Ming vase mates Sale and Price in spring training backfired, in that both pitchers failed to last deep into the season before getting injured; E-Rod, in contrast, has been E-Long in August and September.

If Sale and Price were doing the same, even with the team's horrendous April, Boston would likely be pushing for the playoffs the final week of the regular season -- rather than playing out the string.

No less an authority than Red Sox pitching legend Luis Tiant cites this as the key to Rodriguez's rise: manager Alex Cora is giving him the chance to pitch out of more tough situations, and E-Rod is gaining confidence in himself. "If you don't give somebody the chance to get out of a jam now," asks Tiant, "when will he ever learn?"

The secret is out: E-Rod is for real. (LaVida Baseball)

Rodriguez is learning now, and along with everything else, he has age on his side.

Modern baseball is a sport where being 30 years old earns you a warning label come contract time, and Boston has three graybeards in Price (34), Sale (30), and Porcello (30). Rodriguez, in contrast, is just 26, an age that throughout the game's history has usually coincided with the start of a player's physical and statistical prime. In other words, while the "Big Three" of Boston's 2018 champs are trying to regain their standing as dependable hurlers come 2020, Rodriguez should be getting stronger and better.

As Boston fans count down the final days of a forgettable campaign -- and cheer for E-Rod to reach 20 wins, 200 strikeouts, and 200 innings -- that's a thought they can hang their Hot Stove hats on.

E-Rod is after it (Barry Chin/Boston Globe)