ANAHEIM -- Tanner Houck’s most satisfying performance of 2023 came on Monday night at Angel Stadium, and included many elements for the Red Sox to feel good about regarding the righty’s progress.
The only thing lacking was a win, but that had little to do with the 26-year-old Houck, who fired six strong innings, allowing three hits and one run while walking two and striking out eight.
Houck, however, was the storyline for Boston.
Here are some takeaways from his outing.
1) Second, third times through the order
The narrative coming into this start was Houck’s dominant numbers the first time through the order (.109/.194/.125 slash line through eight starts) compared to his rough numbers the second (.369/.408/.523) and third (.313/.361/.656) times through.
In this one, the only run Houck gave up was in the bottom of the second. But even that was a success story of sorts, as Houck escaped a bases-loaded jam by striking out Mike Trout.
“Got into trouble early,” said Houck. “Was kind of fighting my delivery the whole time. But I focused on it and was having good conversations with [pitching coach Dave Bush] in between innings and made some adjustments.”
Backed by those adjustments, the Angels went 2-for-14 against him the second and third times through. Both hits were singles.
“It’s learning, man. This is the big leagues. Not everybody can do that [well],” manager Alex Cora said of going through an order more than once. “He’s going to learn how to do it. I think his stuff, like we talked before the game, it’s the same stuff. It's just a matter of learning and where to go with pitches and all that, and little by little, he's going to be doing that consistently.”
2) Say hello to Mr. Splitty
For years, Houck has talked about trying to develop the splitter as a go-to pitch, particularly against lefties. Monday night seemed to be a breakthrough.
According to Baseball Savant, Houck got 11 swings and six whiffs out of the 16 splitters he threw.
“I’ve worked on that pitch for three or four years now,” said Houck. “Really pushing the envelope. I’m glad I mixed it in a little bit earlier tonight. I felt pretty confident with it. It’s one of those pitches where I have continued to work and continued to push myself on that. So any time you have success, it’s a good feeling.”
Houck mixed in the splitter while relying most on his best pitch -- the slider. Of Houck’s 83 pitches, 34 were sliders. He got seven of his 17 whiffs on that pitch.
“He did an outstanding job,” said Cora. “Changing speeds, using his slider, good fastball, too. It was a good one for him.”
3) The neutralizing of Trout, Ohtani
The highlight of Houck’s outing was the way he mowed through two of the most impactful hitters in the game -- Trout and Shohei Ohtani.
“Obviously, two of the best hitters in the game. Go out there and treat them like anybody else,” said Houck. “Get strike one and strike two. Get in advantage counts and that’s all you can really do. It worked out in my favor.”
Ohtani did work a walk in the first inning while Houck was battling his mechanics. But Houck rebounded by striking him out the next two times -- first on a splitter and then on a slider.
Trout struck out in his first two at-bats, with the one to end the second coming on a slider. In their final faceoff, Houck induced a 73 mph grounder to second from Trout.
4) What’s next? Another start
Though competition is again brewing in Boston’s rotation with Garrett Whitlock getting activated for a start on Saturday in Arizona, it’s clear that Houck won’t be coming out of the rotation -- not after a performance like this one.
“We talked about it in Spring Training. He’s going to pitch a lot of innings,” Cora said. “If it was [as] a reliever, a starter, we said he was going to pitch a lot of innings. Right now, he’s one of our best starters, forget the numbers. You look up and you see a five [ERA] and you’re like, ‘Nah, that’s not him.’ So I'm glad that he pitched well against them tonight. And now, we'll get ready for the next one.”