Phew. After a stressful two weeks of the Red Sox fending off the surging Yankees, Boston finally won the American League East on the penultimate game of the season. But the Red Sox did not have much time to rest or celebrate, as its American League division series matchup against the Houston Astros began Thursday afternoon. Squaring off against the dangerous Astros offense presents a difficult challenge for the Red Sox pitchers. Their starters for the first two games were decided early, and the team decided the third Thursday afternoon: ace Chris Sale, Drew Pomeranz and Doug Fister, respectively. Sale and Pomeranz have had spectacular seasons and are the unequivocal two best pitchers on the team. Heading into the series, the pitcher that would start for the third game was up for debate among the media. The Red Sox must play the first two games of this best of five series in Houston, and Game 3 will undoubtedly be a high-leverage game.
With David Price now pitching out of the bullpen, the Red Sox had three real options to round out the playoff rotation: Eduardo Rodriguez, Rick Porcello and Doug Fister. While each player has the potential for a great start but also has major weaknesses. After Sale and Pomeranz, the Red Sox don’t have a starting pitcher who can threaten the Astros in the playoffs.
In my mind the most probable starter for Game 3 would have been Rick Porcello, last year’s Cy Young Award winner. He has the most recent postseason experience of the three. Despite last year’s success, Porcello has struggled this season and in prior playoff appearances, racking up an earned run average of 5.66 over seven postseason starts. Last year’s nightmarish flop in Game 1 of the 2016 ALDS against the Indians is still fresh in the minds of Red Sox fans. His struggles this year boil down to his fastball lacking movement and his breaking pitches hanging up. While his fastball, especially his two-seam fastball, had a really nice tail to it last season, it has been flat in 2017. Likewise, his sliders, which resulted in many groundball outs last season, haven’t been breaking as hard. As a result, Porcello yielded career highs in home runs, hits, runs and losses. Furthermore, he is particularly susceptible to giving up big hits, which can be lethal in the postseason. While he has shown glimpses of the pitcher he was last year, Porcello is a major gamble to put on the mound in a potentially series-deciding game, especially against a team as offensively savvy as the Astros.
Fister was strong for much of the second half of the season and is a viable choice as a postseason starter. He has been to the playoffs four times and actually owns a respectable 2.60 ERA through 55 innings. But two major issues have arisen, in Fister’s recent outings. The first is fatigue. It is evident that his arm has been ailing him this September, as he has not finished the sixth inning in any of his last four starts. Those recent starts were highlighted by giving up six runs to the Oakland Athletics and four to the Baltimore Orioles. Fister’s other weakness is the first inning. Fister has yielded first inning runs in eight of his last nine starts. And playing from behind is never a situation a team wants to be in, especially during the playoffs when runs are at a premium. If Fister gets the Red Sox in an early hole, its offense, which lacks home run power, will likely struggle to come back.
Eduardo Rodriguez is perhaps the least accomplished of these three pitchers, but he is the starter I would have liked to see at home in Game 3. Though he has been struggling with similar fatigue issues as Fister, he has shown tremendous positives through the first five innings of his starts during the season. Trouble generally seems to arise when Rodriguez stays in the game with his pitch count high, but he does have a knack for keeping the Red Sox close through five innings. In the playoffs, there is no need for Rodriguez on the mound late in games, seeing as the Red Sox now have two strong multi-inning relievers in Joe Kelly and David Price.
The bullpen has been one of the Red Sox’ major strengths throughout the season and the team would be wise to ease the load on the Game 3 starter by leaning on relief pitchers. Especially if the starter is Rodriguez or Fister, the bullpen will definitely play a role in the game. Red Sox manager John Farrell has his work cut out for him this weekend both on and off the field. If the Red Sox are to advance in the postseason, he must constantly manage his starters well.
Charlie Blasberg ’18 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.