BOSTON -- For what could be the biggest “swing game” in this American League Division Series, there’s no one the Red Sox would rather have on the mound that Nathan Eovaldi, their October-tested veteran right-hander.
It will be Eovaldi’s stage for Sunday afternoon’s Game 3 tilt against the Rays, with the winner just one victory away from advancing to the American League Championship Series.
"I love it," said Eovaldi. "It's my favorite time of the year."
Considering how the series started for the Red Sox, getting stifled, 5-0, in Game 1 and watching Chris Sale give up a grand slam to put his team in a 5-2 deficit in the first inning of Game 2, a split in Tampa with Eovaldi set for Game 3 leaves Boston in a good spot.
Earlier this week, it was Eovaldi who turned in a dominant effort (5 1/3 innings, one run, no walks, eight strikeouts) to help the Red Sox outlast the Yankees in the American League Wild Card Game.
Five days later, he'll pitch in a spot very familiar to him from past October experiences.
In the 2018 postseason, Eovaldi took the ball at Yankee Stadium in Game 3 of the ALDS and fired seven innings of one-run ball to break a 1-1 tie in that series. Boston clinched the next day.
Eight days later, pitching in Game 3 of the ALCS at Houston, Eovaldi worked his magic again, holding the potent Astros to two runs over six innings. Boston won that series in five games.
"Game 3 is huge," Eovaldi said. "If we win tomorrow, then we need one more and we're going to be at home. So being able to split the series over there in [St. Petersburg] and then having the opportunity to take it here again in Boston, it's huge for us."
Though Eovaldi obviously has a deep array in his arsenal with five pitches that he goes to regularly, what helps him in October is how much he relishes that spotlight.
In seven career postseason appearances, Eovaldi has a 1.63 ERA. Three of those games have been starts, and he’s won all of them, giving up four runs over 19 2/3 innings.
"I love pitching in these moments and against teams like the Rays. It's going to be a challenge. It's going to be fun," Eovaldi said.
What is it about October that helps Eovaldi take his game to another level?
"Everything," Eovaldi said. "I feel like you're definitely a little more locked in, you're more focused. The energy and the atmosphere, too. Being in the stadium, the fans are locked in from the first pitch on. To be able to battle in those games, it's a lot of fun. The energy throughout the dugout, everybody's locked in and contributing."
Rays manager Kevin Cash had Eovaldi in his rotation for 10 starts in 2018 as he was coming off Tommy John surgery. Eovaldi was moved to Boston that year at the Trade Deadline, but Cash saw enough of Eovaldi to know what kind of pitcher and competitor his team will be up against on Sunday.
"What a great person, great teammate -- all of that we experienced," said Cash. "I'm sure the Red Sox have experienced the last three or four years now, as well. Look, he's a power pitcher. I think he's evolved here over the last couple seasons being able to use the cutter, the curveball, the split a little bit more."
Cash has perhaps seen a little too much of Eovaldi for his liking of late. In 2021, Eovaldi made four starts against Tampa Bay, allowing one earned run or fewer in three of them. The Rays did get to him on July 31, tagging him for five earned runs over 5 1/3 innings.
By this point, that experience has helped Eovaldi develop a plan in terms of what he needs to do to be successful against the Rays.
"I don't want to tip my hand too much. I've got a pretty good plan of attack. I feel like the first two games [of this series] they've come out swinging, definitely," Eovaldi said. "They kind of set the tone right away. Again, once they get on the basepaths, they're aggressive. They're going to try to take advantage of everything, any little mishaps. Obviously, we have to control the running game really well against these guys.
"But just keep attacking them. Try not to let them have any predictable counts where they're going to be in control and keep them out of the game as much as possible."
In what has become Eovaldi’s time of year, he will try to come up big once again for the Red Sox in Game 3, which could put the 100-win Rays on the brink of elimination.