LOS ANGELES —The last we saw the hero of the Red Sox’ 9-6 win in Game 4 of this World Series on Saturday night, he was disgustedly firing his glove into the pitching mound as the three-run homer he’d allowed was still sailing into the night.
To understand why Eduardo Rodríguez was ultimately so pivotal to the result–and to Boston’s 3-1 series lead, and to the fact that new rings will now almost certainly be theirs–we first need to review the state of affairs about 19 hours earlier.
By the wee hours of Saturday morning, Boston manager Alex Cora had exhausted every tactical trick he had to attempt to win Game 3 and to try to leave little doubt about the series’ ultimate outcome. Over the course of a record seven hours and 20 minutes and 18 innings, he had used all of his position players and nine of his eleven pitchers–including Nathan Eovaldi, the scheduled Game 4 starter whom Cora instead called upon to throw 97 pitches in relief–in an all-in attempt to give the Red Sox a 3-0 series lead, and then as many as four straight shots to win one more. It hadn’t worked. A finally tired Eovaldi had allowed a game-winning, opposite-field blast to Max Muncy. And now Cora had to face the possibility that the Dodgers’ 3-2 victory represented not just one victory, but two, given the depletion of his pitching staff. There were no analytics, and there was no precedent, that Cora could cite to explain why that wasn’t true. All he had left was faith.
While Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had succeeded in holding back his previously scheduled Game 4 starter, Rich Hill–as well as Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu–Cora’s only fresh arms were a pair of compromised southpaws: Drew Pomeranz, who hadn’t pitched since he’d finished the regular season with a 6.08 ERA some 28 days earlier; and Chris Sale, the recently injured and ill ace who hadn’t started a game on three days’ rest in six years. So Cora set about talking his team–and perhaps himself–into believing that Muncy hadn’t tied the series up, even turned it upside down, with one inside-out swing.
“There are a few guys that are lining up in my office to start the game tomorrow,” Cora said, just 17 hours or so before Game 4 was to begin. “We’ll decide what we’ll do – and we’ll be fine.”
“Somebody will start,” he added. “Most likely a lefty.”
The choice was indeed a lefty–but neither of the widely anticipated ones. It was Rodríguez, who would become the first pitcher to start a World Series game on zero days rest since one Firpo Marberry in 1924. But Rodríguez threw just six pitches, to one batter, in Game 3. What did Cora expect? “We expect him to go out there,” he said.
To be fair, it’s always hard to know what you might get from the 25-year-old Rodríguez. He was 13-5 with a 3.82 ERA during the regular season, but look at his last four starts; two were one-run gems, and two were disasters in which he allowed five runs and failed to emerge from the fourth inning. In fact, he hadn’t even made a start in five weeks.
It was clear, from the beginning, that this would not be one of his disasters. Rodríguez sailed through the first five innings, allowing just three baserunners and dueling Dodgers’ starter Rich Hill in a scoreless affair. Then came the sixth. He hit leadoff man David Freese with a pitch. He struck out Max Muncy. He allowed a double to Justin Turner, and then intentionally walked Manny Machado. Then Rodríguez got the inning-ending double play ball he needed: a hard bouncer by Cody Bellinger to first–but after securing the out at home, catcher Christian Vázquez’s throw back to first sailed in and hit Bellinger, allowing Turner to score the game’s first run.
Five pitches later, Rodríguez threw what he would call the only mistake he made the whole game. It was a fastball right down the middle of the plate. Yasiel Puig crushed it to right. And Rodríguez slammed his glove into the mound.
He had failed, he thought. The score was 4-0. “I never in my life felt an emotion like I did in that moment,” he said. He was dejected; to flounder, like that, on such a stage.
Then something funny happened. Reliever Matt Barnes struck out Austin Barnes to get the Red Sox out of the inning, and all of the Red Sox trotted off the field and went immediately to Rodríguez. They knew something that he hadn’t yet realized.
“Bro, that was the best game we’ve ever seen you pitch,” they told Rodríguez, as they dapped him up.
“Bro, you did a really good job today.”
“Bro–thank you. We’re going to win this game.”
They did, of course, thanks to a nine-run onslaught in the seventh, eight, and ninth. Mitch Moreland started the scoring with a three-run homer; Brock Holt had a key double; Steve Pearce drove in four runs; all were deservedly celebrated.
But it was Rodríguez, the surprise starter, who gave the Red Sox the length they simply had to have, those 5 2/3 innings of work, but couldn’t expect. Cora admitted that he’d left Rodríguez in too long. “I pushed him too hard,” he said. “I had (Barnes) ready, and I was actually kicking myself for a few innings, before the comeback.” So the four runs on his ledger only distracted from the importance of his outing. A short stint would’ve been damaging; the bullpen almost certainly couldn’t have sustained a second straight night of heavy lifting, and that might’ve meant that Cora would have had to turn to David Price to cover the innings that Rodríguez hadn’t.
But he didn’t have to. Aside from Rodríguez, Cora only had to use three other pitchers: Barnes threw 11 pitches, Joe Kelly threw 30, and Craig Kimbrel threw 28. Now Price is rested and ready to start Sunday’s Game 5, and the bullpen is no longer battered.
“He was amazing,” Cora said–not of Moreland, or Holt, or Pearce, but of Rodríguez. “He was amazing.” When Rodríguez picked his glove up off the dirt and stalked off the mound, he hadn’t known that yet. But he knows it now.