Bello a mixed bag in latest bid for Opening Day nod

Houck goes three scoreless with sights on rotation; Casas debuts

March 2nd, 2024

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Brayan Bello showed up to Red Sox camp early this spring, even for pitchers and catchers.

Barring injury, he’s already got a spot at the front of the rotation thanks to a strong 2023 campaign, but Boston’s homegrown talent didn’t crack the big league roster by chance. It took hard work, focus and a drive to be a little better every day.

This year, the pot is sweetened a little more, with Bello in the running to become the Red Sox’s Opening Day starter.

“Of course it’s on my mind,” Bello said Saturday through interpreter Carlos Villoria Benitez. “I came early to [Spring Training] to prepare to be one of those guys. If not the Opening Day starter, then the second starter. I want to be up there.”

Bello had mixed results during his second Grapefruit League start of the year, but ultimately held the Nationals to two runs on one hit during Boston’s 4-2 win at JetBlue Park. He strengthened his bid early to be a rotation No. 1 with a perfect first and third frame.

Between the two innings lay a funky showing where Bello admitted his mechanics got a little away from him. He walked the leadoff batter and then plunked the next two to load the bases. Bello bounced back to coax Carter Kieboom to ground into a double play that scored Washington’s first run, then allowed an infield single to Riley Adams that plated another.

Still, it wasn’t a bad showing. After the blip, Bello retired the final four batters he faced. Adams’ hit is the only one Bello has allowed through two starts so far (five total innings).

“He’s got good stuff. He’s understanding how you use it, too,” manager Alex Cora said. “There was a sequence there where he threw three changes in a row to a lefty.

“His changeup is really good, and the more he throws it, the better it’s going to be.”

Bello, who was signed by Boston as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2017, is one of the few impact pitchers Boston has “raised” through its developmental pipeline in the past decade or so. Just as the organization is taking steps to improve its success rate in this area, including the addition of director of pitching Justin Willard, Bello, too, is working to up his game.

To be on the bump on March 28 when the Sox open the regular season in Seattle, he thinks, would be a great payoff.

Rotation, rotation
Tanner Houck followed Bello and threw three scoreless frames in his wake, walking one and allowing just one hit.

It’s been a strong spring so far out of the gate for Houck, who threw two perfect innings against the Phillies in his Grapefruit League debut on Monday. As many players use spring to slowly ramp up and fine-tune for the regular season, each outing is important for the 27-year-old Houck, who’s battling Josh Winckowski and best friend Garrett Whitlock for the No. 5 spot in the rotation.

The time Houck spent this offseason focusing on his delivery and how it relates to his pitch location -- throwing strikes, specifically -- paid off on Saturday, when he racked up his first five punchouts of the spring.

With three weeks left in camp, the Red Sox have plenty of time to evaluate who’ll get that last spot in the rotation, but Houck hasn’t done anything to hurt himself so far.

“Tanner was great,” Cora said. “We threw a lot of strikes, we made some plays behind them, and overall, I think we did great on the pitching side.”

Casas in the house
Triston Casas, who placed third in last season’s AL Rookie of the Year voting, made his spring debut on Saturday and finished 0-for-2 with two strikeouts. A recent illness had kept Casas from action for the past five days, and he was thrilled to rejoin the action in front of the (spring) home crowd.

“I couldn’t take a smile off my face, even after striking out,” Casas said about his first game of 2024. “... It was just nice to be in front of the crowd. Noise, being auditorily stimulated, is another factor. I feel like it affects your central nervous system in a different way, so I’m glad that I was actually able to get back out there in front of a crowd.”