The notion of greed isn’t always a financial one when associated with professional sports.
How much more can be coaxed from a given player in terms of performance can dictate the difference between victory and defeat, championships and postseason disappointment. It’s why Red Sox manager Alex Cora stood in the visiting clubhouse at Camden Yards late Tuesday night and softly critiqued a pitcher who has lost just one of his 13 starts this season.
Eduardo Rodriguez turned in 5 2/3 innings in a 6-4 victory over the helpless Orioles, part of Boston’s three-game sweep to begin its three-city road swing. The left-hander’s usual mix of four-seam fastballs, changeups and cut-fastballs was more than enough to keep Baltimore at bay, the third victory Rodriguez has posted this season against the club who signed him out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old international free agent in 2010.
The end result was satisfactory. Dissecting exactly how it was achieved carried with it a different tone, as Rodriguez failed for the 11th time to throw a pitch in the seventh inning. Coming off a 2-0, 12-inning shutout of the Orioles the previous night, the Red Sox and their depleted bullpen were somewhat desperate for a greater contribution.
“I feel there’s more there,” Cora said. “There’s certain games we need our starters to go deeper, and today was one of them. He gave us what he gave, but I think the next step is for him to get through six, seven innings. And he can do that.”
“That’s not a really good feeling for a starting pitcher,” Rodriguez said of his latest early exit. “You just need to keep working. It’s going to come one day, but I’ve just got to keep working to try to get deep into games.”
Rodriguez is striking out a career-high 10.17 batters per nine innings and approaching a career low by walking just 2.89. The 96 mph four-seamer he turned loose on his 103rd pitch Tuesday suggests the 25-year-old is plenty strong, with his thick body and surgically-repaired right knee seemingly ideal to shoulder a starting pitcher’s workload long term. Hitters have swung and missed at 12 percent of all pitches thrown by Rodriguez this season, more than fellow Boston rotation mates David Price (nine percent) and Rick Porcello (nine percent).
“If he sees himself from the dugout, what we see, he’d be in awe,” Cora said. “As far as the stuff, you look up and it’s 95. Then 89. Then the slider – all of that.
“It’s not that he doesn’t believe in his stuff. It’s what we see is a lot better than what he probably thinks he has.”
What Cora and his coaching staff want is more of a ruthless streak from Rodriguez. Terminating at-bats quickly when he has opposing hitters in compromising counts can make the difference between enjoying an extra inning of work or not. There were three specific examples of plate appearances that drove up his pitch count on Tuesday, corrections Cora feels are within reach.
“He can go right away, 0-2, and use that good changeup,” Cora said. “He had a good one today, and he can bury guys. Then he can come in or use that fastball at 94 or 95 and just go after it.”
Adam Jones saw four more pitches after falling down 0-2 in the third inning, eventually grounding to short. Mark Trumbo was behind 0-2 on two different occasions in the fourth and sixth, and he chewed through seven additional pitches while popping to second and grounding to second. Those extra 11 pitches could well have been enough for Rodriguez to finish the sixth and take a chunk out of the seventh against the Orioles.
“I’ve been trying to do the best I can to go deeper into games,” Rodriguez said. “If there’s something I’ve got to change I will do it. I’m just going to keep trying to find it.”
Whether or not Rodriguez can take that next step remains to be seen. Working behind Price, Porcello and Chris Sale in the rotation suggests less immediate pressure to perform, and the Red Sox are bound to have plenty of patience with a player they have under club control until 2022.
"He should stay with his strengths, and we’ve been preaching that,” Cora said. “He can put people out right away. He doesn’t have to set people up.”