Whitlock closing on return after 1st spring test

March 15th, 2023

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- On an unusually chilly day for baseball in Florida, Red Sox hurler took his largest step forward yet in warming up for the regular season.

It was the 26-year-old's first appearance in a Grapefruit League game this year, returning to the mound in a competitive setting after being shut down late last year and undergoing hip surgery in September.

The righty, who seems poised for a starting rotation spot, attacked hitters and looked sharp in two innings of work in Wednesday's 9-1 win over the Rays. Whitlock, who said he's all but put the hip injury in the rearview mirror, did not allow a hit, walked one, and struck out three over his two frames.

"Another step in the right direction. It felt good," Whitlock said. "It was fun getting out there and trying to be quick."

Whitlock served as both a bullpen arm and starting option last season for the Red Sox, appearing in 31 games (nine starts) and working 78 1/3 innings for the club. He posted a 3.45 ERA in 2022, saving six games, and held hitters to a .222 average. Since he opened eyes in '21, the 2020 Rule 5 Draft pick from the Yankees has been a player with a high ceiling and strong work ethic. In April of 2022, Whitlock signed a four-year, $18.75 million extension that includes club options for 2027 and ’28.

Whitlock said he put his faith in the Sox and the training staff to work through his injury, and now it's paying off. 

"[Manager Alex Cora] just told me to trust the progress, it's just one of those things where I just get paid to pitch, I don't do the medical side of things, so I trust them with what they're doing. And so I'm just kind of taking it one day at a time and following the process they lay out for me.

While Whitlock won't be ready for the opening series of the season, best case scenario sees him absent for the first two trips through the rotation as he continues to build just a few steps behind his peers. As far as he's concerned, at this point, all focus is on building up strength and gaining command of all pitches heading into a season as he would any other year.

"I don't feel the hip, it's not a thought in my head," Whitlock said. "So now it's just fine-tuning the craft and making sure I'm in tip-top pitching shape. Just normal progress."

And when is he healthy and able to join the rotation as he was destined? Whitlock is ready to test his mettle. 

"I'm excited. I think it'll be a really good challenge," Whitlock said. "It's one of those things where I love trying new things, so it'll be a lot of fun."

Whitlock's hip injury flared up in June of '22, and he battled through it for a good chunk of time. Cora said the injury was "rough" at times limiting Whitlock's mobility, but he toughed it out. 

"He did everything for us that we asked last year, but he wasn't healthy," Cora said pregame. "There's a reason we [shut him down], because where we were in the season, why push it? The reason we stopped it right away was for him to be able to pitch as many innings as possible this year."

Cora said he contemplated having Whitlock continue to pitch on a practice field and not yet appear in a spring game, but felt he earned the right to get out there.

"He deserves it," Cora said. "He's worked his butt off this offseason to get to this point. His arm is sound. He's moving well."

Cora thought Whitlock looked great on the mound after his appearance, noting his mobility looked on par with what they're looking for. 

"He moved today better than he moved the whole season last year," Cora said. "Those are good signs."