Orioles third baseman Renato Núñez thought he was pitched ball four and looked to take his free base in the first inning of Sunday’s matinee at Fenway Park. But Núñez’s slow jog to first was quickly halted before it could begin, as home plate umpire Jansen Visconti deemed Red Sox starter Nate Eovaldi’s 97.2 miles-per-hour fastball a strike.
So, instead, Núñez retook his spot in the batter’s box and proceeded to pummel Eovaldi’s very next pitch, a hanging curveball, over the Green Monster for a three-run homer.
“Boy, you hang it, they bang it,’’ color commentator Dennis Eckersley said on the NESN television broadcast.
The 415-foot blast was the most glaring of the several blemishes on Eovaldi’s showing — his first start in four months — and prompted pitching coach Dana LeVangie to visit the mound. Though manager Alex Cora said before the game he was hoping for 55–60 pitches from the 29-year-old righty, he pulled the plug after 43.
Eovaldi lasted just two innings, surrendering three hits and five earned runs. The offense bailed him out, mounting a 13-run rally, but the performance left much to be desired from a pitcher set to be a regular part of the rotation moving forward.
“I felt fine physically, but I was just all over the place,’’ Eovaldi said after his no-decision. “I wasn’t able to execute my pitches when I needed to. They needed me to go out there and go a little deeper in the game.’’
Signs of trouble emerged early.
Eovaldi’s second pitch of the afternoon was a 95.5 m.p.h. fastball that Orioles shortstop Jonathan Villar pounded off the wall for a double. His third was a curveball ruled a wild pitch.
While velocity seemed to be a non-issue, Eovaldi walked three of the 11 batters he faced — all of which scored. He finished with 23 strikes in those 43 pitches, a 53.5 percent strike rate well below his season average of 63 percent.
“Location-wise, he was off,’’ Cora said. “Just one of those [days] that he wasn’t as effective or throwing pitches in the zone like he usually does.’’
Eovaldi had been used exclusively in relief since returning from the injured list on July 20. He said he doesn’t think the transition from the bullpen was a factor in his struggles on Sunday.
Since logging a 1.61 ERA during last year’s World Series run, the Red Sox winning five of his six appearances, Eovaldi has struggled. Before undergoing right elbow surgery in April, he posted a 6.00 ERA, and gave up six home runs in four starts. Sunday’s outing certainly didn’t help his case.
With ace Chris Sale’s elbow inflammation muddying his future, the Red Sox will need Eovaldi to channel some of his 2018 postseason energy for potentially 7–8 starts in their playoff push.
Cora noted he doesn’t plan to use Eovaldi in the bullpen this week; he is scheduled to start at the San Diego Padres on Sunday.
“He’ll be back in San Diego,’’ Cora said. “He’ll be OK.’’