Drellich: Already improved, Eduardo Rodriguez has time to take next step

Evan Drellich
NBC Sports Boston

BALTIMORE - It's easy to let the potential of Eduardo Rodriguez push aside how far he's come. There's a progression at play, even as efficiency continued to elude him in a 6-4 win over the Orioles on Tuesday night.

Last year, this stadium literally brought a tipping point for the southpaw. Rodriguez fell over on the mound while warming up at Camden Yards in early June, his balky knee giving out. He still pitched that day, to his credit. But the subluxation landed him on the disabled list. He didn't pitch again until after the All-Star break and had surgery in the offseason to fix that right knee.

Entering this year, pitching in good health - and doing so with confidence that good health will remain - was goal No. 1 for E-Rod. Mission accomplished, so far. After 5 2/3 innings on Tuesday night, the 25-year-old lefty is 8-1 and has allowed two earned runs or fewer in five consecutive starts. In his past seven starts, he has a 2.29 ERA. 

"He's getting better," a veteran lefty with strikeout stuff, David Price, said Tuesday night. "He keeps evolving with new pitches, picking up the two-seam, throwing that into righties, throwing that cutter in, throwing that cutter away.

"He's healthier. So that definitely helps. He can go out there and not have to worry about this knee and stuff. That's a big deal for him. He keeps getting better. He's better than anybody else in here when we were 24 or 25."

Price, who won a Cy Young in his age-26 season, is selling short how good he was at that age. He wasn't yet a master at efficiency, though, averaging 4.03 pitches per batter faced. Entering Tuesday, Price carried the sixth-best figure in the majors: 3.63.

That's the area where Rodriguez can most clearly keep getting better: pitch count. The 109 pitches Wednesday were his second most this season, behind the 110 he threw against the O's on May 20.

Rodriguez entered Tuesday at 4.34 per batters faced, which would have been the highest in the majors if he qualified.

"I think that kind of all stems off fastball command," Price said of efficiency. "I feel like that's when Eddy struggles and doesn't pitch as deep as he wants to in a game, it's just his command of his fastball, that's it.

"You know your strikeouts are going to be there or at the end of the game or at the end of the season. You can't strike guys out unless you have strike one, strike two. He's learning. He's still young. Strikeouts probably still mean a whole lot to him. He'll learn."

Four of E-Rod's past five starts were all 5 2/3 innings. That's roughly the average length of a major-league start. After a 12-inning game on Monday night, the Sox could have used more length. They'll definitely need some from Wednesday's starter, Chris Sale.

"It's just a matter to make that next step, recognize who you are," Alex Cora said Tuesday. "Sometimes he gets caught up in being someone who he's not, and Eduardo Rodriguez is a good big-league pitcher. His stuff is up there. He should stay with his strength. We've been preaching that. You can put people out right away. You don't have to set people up."

Still, the Sox are fortunate they're in a position where they don't need Rodriguez to develop that efficiency rapidly. Between Sale and Price and Rick Porcello and even Steven Wright, if Rodriguez is the Sox the length of a back-of-the-rotation pitcher, well, that's where he fits at the moment.

Rodriguez's youth can be forgotten because he debuted in 2015. Still, he only debuted his repaired knee this year. He's found consistency in effectiveness and strung together reliable starts.

Cora and the Sox probably want to keep pushing E-Rod. Rodriguez has the kind of personality that can benefit from a little push, too. He has stuff that's so good - his changeup was sterling Tuesday - that he can get away with not always having laser focus. The blessing and the curse of a great arm. 

But given the state of the team and where Rodriguez was roughly a year ago this time in this same stadium, he's come along way. The Sox can afford patience as they push him to go even further.

"It's been a lot of starts that are 5 2/3 [innings]," Rodriguez said. "That's not a really good feeling for a starting pitcher. It's something I've got to keep working on. It's going to come one day, but I need to keep working to try to get deep in the games."

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