Eduardo Rodriguez felt chills course through him. His mind rushed back to his MLB debut from six years prior. He’d been calm during warmups, but in the final moments before Thursday’s start began, something changed.
“It’s not like, nervous,” Rodriguez said, “but I was just too excited to go out there.”
A day after turning 28, and 587 days after he last appeared on a big league mound, Rodriguez earned the win in a 7-3 victory over the Orioles. He tossed five solid innings, allowing three runs on four hits while striking out seven.
“I think today’s story is not about hitting or defense, or whatever,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “It’s about Eduardo.”
Last season, Rodriguez contracted COVID-19 shortly before Summer Camp and was later diagnosed with myocarditis, which forced him to miss the entire 2020 season. He then had to skip his first turn in the rotation this season due to left elbow inflammation (i.e. “dead arm”).
Rodriguez returned Thursday for his first outing since Sept. 29, 2019. He promised himself that results were secondary, and that making it back to the mound was what mattered. After his first pitch, the Red Sox gave him a standing ovation from the dugout and the bullpen to acknowledge his special achievement.
“What happened today is because of him,” Cora said. “He put the work [in], he put himself in this situation and it was very gratifying. We’re very happy for him.”
Rodriguez didn’t have his most electric stuff, with just 10 whiffs in 79 pitches. And the O’s touched him up for two home runs — the first two homers allowed by Boston this season (snapping an MLB-best streak of 57 2/3 innings). But Rodriguez did spin seven strikeouts, including four in a six-batter span early on. He used his changeup 32 percent of the time, more than any other pitch, which was uncharacteristically high for the left-hander (his career changeup usage is 20.3 percent, per Statcast).
“That’s his pitch,” catcher Christian Vázquez said. “It’s tough to hit it, so we need to throw it. That changed everything.”
Rodriguez’s butterflies disappeared after that emotional first inning, and he settled in nicely. After working a 1-2-3 fifth, he sat in the dugout for good, with the Red Sox trailing 3-2. But they strung together three hits and a walk in the ensuing half-inning to jump in front by one, putting Rodriguez in line for the win.
His wife, Catherine, called right away. Rodriguez had to tell her he couldn’t talk yet, because the game was still going on.
“But she was really happy,” he said. “And I was happy that she was happy, too.”
J.D. Martinez stayed white-hot in the following inning by smacking a double to center, securing an extra-base hit in a seventh consecutive game to start the season. He’s the only Red Sox player to ever do that, and one of just five players to do so since at least 1901.
All that support helped Rodriguez move to 41-2 in games when Boston scores at least four runs.
Rodriguez is clearly an important player atop the Red Sox’s rotation. He finished sixth in American League Cy Young Award voting in 2019, leading the Majors in starts (34) and the team in wins (19), while posting a 3.81 ERA.
After his COVID-19 diagnosis, and the ensuing complications, Rodriguez was in line to make his comeback start on Opening Day last week. So much time had passed, and he was right to be eager.
When a bout of “dead arm” got in his way, Rodriguez adjusted. He dealt with the issue and made his return when the time was right. It was an impressive sign of maturity in the eyes of Cora.
“Obviously he’s not a selfish guy,” Cora said. “That conversation a week before Opening Day, obviously he wanted to start. But he knew that he wasn’t going to be able. It was a great conversation. He knows we’re here for a marathon. It’s not a sprint. This is a different guy compared to ’18 and early ’19. He gets it, and like I said, it was a great day for everyone.”