Tanner Houck will head back to Boston's alternate training site in Worcester, Mass., on Sunday night, and although his start against the White Sox didn’t have the result he and the Red Sox had hoped for, the 24-year-old right-hander continues to make strides on the mound.
Houck allowed three runs on six hits over 4 1/3 innings in the first game of Sunday’s doubleheader, striking out two without walking a batter in the 3-2 loss to Chicago. He was ambushed by Tim Anderson on the game’s first pitch, serving up a 96.8-mph fastball that the White Sox shortstop deposited in Boston's bullpen. But Houck was unfazed, settling into a good groove over the next few innings.
“You just tip your cap, you go back out there and get the next guy,” Houck said. “Whether it's a home run to the first guy of the game or whether it's a home run you give up in the third inning, you’ve just got to go back out there and just keep attacking, get the next guy and go forward.”
“Anderson put a good swing right away, and that's going to happen,” manager Alex Cora said. “But [Houck] didn't shy away from the strike zone, and that's what we want.”
Houck allowed just one more hit until the fourth, when José Abreu singled with one out, then scored on Yasmani Grandal’s two-out double. Houck allowed two singles in the fifth before being lifted with one out, then watched Yoán Moncada single in a third White Sox run.
While Houck was touching 98 mph with his fastball -- the hardest he has thrown this season -- he made a point to say he is “never really hunting velo” on the mound. Command is far more important to Houck, as is his trust in the splitter, which is growing with each outing.
“I've spent so much time working on it now that I definitely feel like going into my starts, I can really start implementing it,” Houck said. “I threw it to right-handed hitters today, which before today's outing I would never have done. ... There were some mistakes, but there's also some patches that I can look back at and be like, ‘All right, that's a solid pitch.’”
Despite the loss, Cora was pleased with Houck’s effort, praising him for pounding the strike zone and giving the Red Sox a chance to win.
“We know about his development, but you’ve seen how we use him,” Cora said. “When we needed a spot starter for Eduardo [Rodriguez], he pitched. We needed somebody to pitch today and he pitched, so it's a guy we trust. The beauty of this team, we’re deeper than last year, and actually deeper than ‘19. We feel like we’ve got capable guys in Triple-A, and whenever we need them, they're going to give us a quality start.”
Kiké Hernández continued swinging a hot bat Sunday, belting a solo home run against Dallas Keuchel in the sixth inning of the Game 1 loss. Hernández is hitting .341 (14-for-41) with an .894 OPS over his past 10 games, putting his sluggish 2-for-18 start behind him.
“He’s great off the field, but we're starting to see that he's a good baseball player,” Cora said. “He brings energy every day. He's very serious about his craft and what he expects out of his teammates.”
Although Hernández has seen limited time at second base and shortstop this season, he has settled in as Boston’s primary center fielder, starting 11 of the first 15 games there. He started at second base in Sunday's nightcap, just his third start there this season.
“I'm getting comfortable with the Fenway dimensions because I've been playing a lot of center field,” Hernández said. “I haven't used my infield glove in a few games, so I’m just getting comfortable out there and looking forward to the weather warming up a little bit.”
The Red Sox ran out of time in the opener on Sunday, falling to the White Sox by one run in the seven-inning affair. Two extra turns at the plate might have helped Boston stage one of its trademark comebacks, but even after the loss, Cora remains a fan of the seven-inning doubleheader rule.
“I loved it last year as a fan, and I like it as a manager,” Cora said. “There's a sense of urgency from the get-go.”
Cora pointed to White Sox manager Tony La Russa’s approach with starter Dallas Keuchel, who was cruising through five innings. When Hernández socked a solo home run to lead off the sixth, La Russa wasted no time in replacing Keuchel, something that might not have happened in a nine-inning game.
Cora acknowledged that he likely would have left Houck in longer in a nine-inning game, but the abbreviated format caused him to be more aggressive with his pitching staff.