The heat is on these two Red Sox players as MLB season begins

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John Tomase
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Tomase: The heat is on these two Sox players as season begins originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Red Sox won't make the playoffs unless a lot goes right on the margins, but we're not here to discuss the margins. This is about the masthead.

For all the discussions of needing a big season out of newcomer Garrett Richards, or leadership from Enrique Hernandez, or shutdown innings out of a revamped bullpen, the real bullseye should be placed on a pair of holdovers who played pivotal roles in the 2018 championship.

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In right-hander Nathan Eovaldi and designated hitter J.D. Martinez, the Red Sox boast players capable of leading the pitching staff and offense, respectively. But if they don't perform, it's hard to imagine the club playing beyond the first weekend in October.

The two are coming off markedly different seasons. Eovaldi only made nine starts, but he used them to show how valuable he can be as a second or third starter, going 4-2 with a 3.72 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 48.1 innings.

Martinez, conversely, never got untracked, admitting that he wasn't mentally checked in when the season began in July. Fastballs overmatched him, his swing looked broken, and he hit just .213, a number he's sick of having thrown in his face.

When the 2021 Red Sox season officially kicks off on Friday against the Orioles at Fenway Park, Eovaldi will be making his second straight Opening Day start and Martinez will be in the lineup for the fourth straight year at DH. They might be the two most important players on the team.

With Eduardo Rodriguez a question mark after missing a year due to COVID complications and the newcomer Richards a perennial injury risk, Eovaldi represents the closest thing to a proven commodity in the rotation.

The problem is, outside of two magical weeks during the 2018 playoffs, he's hardly been reliable himself. He threw just 67.2 innings in 2019 and then managed to miss three starts during the truncated 2020 season, too. He didn't have much of a spring, posting a 6.60 ERA and allowing 21 hits in 15 innings despite reaching 100 mph.

The Red Sox need more out of him. So much more.

"I'm happy where we are now," Eovaldi said of the pitching staff in general on Wednesday. "You have the doubters out there. You can say what you want. . . . I feel like our starters are going to do a lot of great things this year."

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While the Red Sox will be relying on a thin, injury-prone rotation to answer the ball after last year's debacle, it's possible that Martinez is an even more important figure. His presence in the middle of the lineup allows everyone else to relax. The Red Sox learned in 2017 what can happen when there's no thumper to absorb the pressure. That season between David Ortiz's departure and Martinez's arrival just happened to coincide with down years out of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, and Jackie Bradley Jr.

It wasn't a coincidence.

"We have a lot of really good hitters, and I think J.D.'s the best hitter on the team, and everybody knows that, and that's why he gets paid the big bucks to be the designated hitter," Hernandez said. "I think what we saw in J.D. throughout spring and what we saw the last week, we're pretty confident J.D.'s going to be the J.D. of old."

After a slow start, Martinez hit .291 this spring with a home run and 10 RBIs. The Red Sox are counting on a big year not only out of him, but Eovaldi, too.

Their postseason aspirations depend on it.