Commentary

This weekend showed the Red Sox’ path to 2022 success — and how hard it’ll be to keep up

Garrett Whitlock in Red Sox yellow and blue uniform
Through nine games, Garrrett Whitlock has thrown essentially as many innings as Boston's starting pitchers. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

COMMENTARY

A six-run eighth inning wasn’t the best finish in Boston sports on Sunday, not by a long shot (or a layup), but it was quite the exclamation point on a picture-perfect 48 hours at Fenway Park.

On Saturday, Tanner Houck — one of the potential-laden arms plugged into the bottom half of the starting rotation — pounded the strike zone and made big pitches when he needed to in 5 ⅔ shutout innings. Matt Strahm and Garrett Whitlock finished, and Alex Verdugo crushed a mistake for all the runs they’d need.

On Sunday, it was Michael Wacha, whose changeup did exactly what it’s supposed to: Draw soft contact (it was put in play once) and strengthen his fastball, which despite averaging a meager 92 miles per hour delivered five outs across his five one-hit innings.

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And that six-run eighth, sparing Hansel Robles from needing to close a one-run game? The classic afternoon of quality at-bats, to borrow from Alex Cora’s vernacular, finally resulting in a breakthrough.

“I do believe that was our best effort,” Cora told reporters, in part. “It seems like we’re getting close to who we are.”

We hope. If it’s gonna look good this summer, that’s what it’s gonna look like. And I’m not just talking about the City Connect unis.

Can it? We’ll probably have a bit better idea after the AL East-leading Blue Jays come through for three games midweek, followed by a road trip through Tampa and Toronto, but Minnesota’s no slouch.

(Programming note: We can talk about Houck and his fellow unvaccinated friends in more depth at a later date, but to read him saying, “Anything I can do for this team to help them win, I’ll do it” seconds after, well, not … that is definitely something.)

The offense is not a relative concern. Trevor Story’s three outs Sunday were all hit harder than his two-run single in the eighth, and his single Saturday was his hardest contact of the year — “if I’m doing that,” he told reporters of the shot to right-center, “I know I’m really close.”

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That’s the No. 6 hitter we’re talking about. Boston’s gonna need another 800-run season at minimum to compete, and since they broke out against old pal Eduardo Rodriguez in Detroit, the signs are good.

The pitching puzzle? Whitlock has been a revelation on top of the one he was a year ago. A feel-good story of feel-good stories — he used to bottle-feed baby goats, for goodness sakes — already pitching into a third inning in three of nine games, with essentially a starter’s workload from the bullpen.

We haven’t seen this in a generation. Dennis Lamp made 23 relief appearances of at least 2 ⅓ innings for the 1990 division champions (without near the success), with Bob Stanley and Dick Radatz perhaps better comparisons even farther back. Since 1995, the only Red Sox pitcher with at least 15 such appearances was Alfredo Aceves (17) in 2011.

We may not even see it in 2022 as Cora himself admitted after Whitlock’s four-inning gem in Detroit.

“It’s a good plan,” he said of pairing Whitlock with Marathon Monday’s starter Rich Hill. “It’s just a matter of how long we can do it.”

Whitlock’s early usage when the Red Sox have a chance to win harkens to last year’s early season leaning on Matt Barnes, who almost always delivered until he spectacularly crumbled in August. To be fair, Barnes’ continuing issues seem to go deeper than usage. His full-speed-ahead pace and willingness to attack the zone, both Whitlock staples as well, completely disappeared.

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And the way the Red Sox are handling their pitching staff will have to change when the calendar flips to May, and MLB rosters trim back to 26 from 28, with a maximum of 13 pitchers. Cora, carrying 15, can pull seven of his nine starting pitchers at the end of the fifth or earlier. With a shortened spring, there’s little reason not to.

Next month is different, and the likes of Strahm, Robles, and Jake Diekman, not to mention Houck, Wacha, Hill, and Nick Pivetta — who fell behind six of the first seven hitters in his abysmal Friday start — will need to handle the increased need. Every one of them can give Cora flexibility and decrease the need for him to smash the glass on Whitlock in every winnable game.

Not mentioned there is Josh Taylor, who grew into a high-leverage arm last season and who made his first rehab appearance for Triple-A Worcester on Sunday. Also James Paxton, who threw a Friday bullpen session just about 12 months from his Tommy John surgery.

And, obviously, Chris Sale, who threw on flat ground Friday and has yet to do something that will keep him from being impactful for at least the final three months of the year. (Loaded statement that is.)

Seem complicated? This was the plan! However you want to spin it, Chaim Bloom’s 2022 strategy was targeted to some degree, but “keep throwing fistfuls of darts at the board, in hopes some have to hit treble 20 just based on physics” in another. He trusts Cora to piece it all together — and with valid reason.

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Good thing his beard’s already gray. For as easy as it looks when it looks easy, getting there consistently is gonna be a six-month project.

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