For most of the first 24 games and seven innings of the 2019 season, the Red Sox lineup had the feel of a volcano that had gone dormant. The Vesuvian displays of a year ago had gone missing, but in the last five games, manager Alex Cora thought he’d finally started to see signs of smoldering magma nearing the surface.
Despite a relatively modest 22 runs over the previous five games — three wins in Tampa Bay, two losses at home to the Tigers on Tuesday — Cora had seen sustained pressure being exerted against pitching staffs that suggested possibility.
Finally, on Wednesday night, the eruption occurred. It was inelegant, reflecting heavily on the woeful command of Tigers relievers Jose Fernandez and Drew VerHagen, who issued a combined five walks and hit a batter and allowed a pair of hits, leading to seven runs in the eighth inning. But for the Red Sox, the bottom line of their biggest inning of the year and a season-high run output in an 11-4 victory over the Tigers was celebrated as a long-awaited and much-anticipated reminder of potential.
“We haven’t been able to do that that much this year. That feeling is what we had all last year where we feed off each other. We did it there, whether it be walks, hits, hit by pitch,” said Andrew Benintendi. “It’s just nice to get it rolling.”
It was a noteworthy offensive night for a number of reasons. The Red Sox continued to show evidence of a lineup that is forcing pitchers to work inside the strike zone, with their 10 walks representing a season high. All nine Red Sox in the starting lineup reached base multiple times, the first time they had achieved such a relentless top-to-bottom attack since Sept. 9, 2016.
“The line is moving,” said Cora.
It was moving with particular efficiency atop the lineup. Benintendi (1 for 4 with a double, walk, two runs, and an RBI), Mookie Betts (2 for 4 with a double, walk, two runs, and an RBI), and J.D. Martinez (3 for 5 with a double, run, and RBI) all smashed pitches for extra-base hits, with Martinez ripping a grounder with such force down the left field line that it lodged in the jamb of the garage door under the grandstand. The glimpse of potential should all three hitters take flight simultaneously tantalized Cora.
“Last year I don’t think it happened, the three of them at the same time getting hot,” suggested Cora. “It’s cool to see the three swinging that well. We’ll see where it takes us.”
That said, the late-game offensive explosion was merely the finale that celebrated an outstanding outing by Eduardo Rodriguez and relievers Brandon Workman and Matt Barnes when the outcome remained undecided. Rodriguez, long the baby of the Red Sox rotation, continued to give indications that he’s ready to challenge the pecking order of the starting five.
Rodriguez proved dominant over six innings, allowing just one run on two hits while walking three and punching out seven. His pitch mix was overpowering, with hitters swinging and missing or making consistently feeble contact.
The Tigers swung and missed against 18 of his 90 pitches, baffled by his array of four- and two-seam fastballs, cutters, changeups, and sliders. His heavy use of the slider — a pitch that Rodriguez had employed infrequently through his first four starts — was noteworthy for two reasons.
He threw more of them (16) than in any outing since 2017, and he employed a new grip to which he’d been introduced just days earlier by noted slider-throwing expert Dustin Pedroia.
“He said, ‘Do you want to see a nasty breaking ball?’ ” Rodriguez recounted. “He just told me that he was throwing that when he was in school. He told me how to throw it. I’ve got to say thank you to him.”
The rest of the Red Sox expressed their thanks to Rodriguez. The Tigers became yet the latest team to struggle against the lefthander. Over his last three starts, all Red Sox wins, Rodriguez has a 3.00 ERA while striking out 21 and walking four in 18 innings.
While Rodriguez dominated, the Red Sox offense applied sustained pressure against Tigers starter Tyson Ross, who labored through five innings while allowing four runs on seven hits and three walks, and had to work through numerous high pitch-count at-bats.
The Red Sox claimed a 2-0 lead in the second inning in no small part due to an unusually aggressive approach on the bases. Martinez singled and took off for second on a full count, thus allowing him to reach second safely on what might have been a double-play ball. Martinez then came around to score on a Rafael Devers single under the glove of second baseman Gordon Beckham.
Though Devers was wiped out trying to steal second, Michael Chavis coaxed a two-out walk and advanced to third when Jackie Bradley Jr.’s soft liner to right found turf. Bradley then took off for second and, with Beckham covering the bag, Christian Vazquez bounced a single through the vacated right side for a second run.
The Red Sox followed a slightly more traditional path to two additional runs against a tiring Ross in the fifth. Betts — who’d struck out looking at cutters in his first two at-bats — enthusiastically greeted a first-pitch fastball by smashing a run-scoring double high off the Wall in left-center. After a walk to Mitch Moreland, Martinez ripped a run-scoring single to left to increase Boston’s lead to a comfortable 4-0.
After the Tigers clawed for their lone run against Rodriguez in the sixth, they asserted themselves once more when down, 4-1, in the eighth. With Red Sox fireman Matt Barnes in the game to face the top of the order, the Tigers loaded the bases on a pair of two-out singles sandwiched around a walk. But Barnes recovered to strike out Ronny Rodriguez on three straight curveballs. The Sox then erupted for seven runs in the eighth for an unusually comfortable victory.
“We hadn’t had a night like that this season,” said Martinez. “For us to do that tonight, I think, is a good sign.”