Houck 'perfect' and more: 30 up, 30 down

Righty mows down 30 straight batters over 4 appearances, helps Sox even ALDS

October 10th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- seemed to have something special going in his final start of the regular season, having mowed through 15 consecutive Nationals, but the Red Sox right-hander seemed to understand why he handed the baseball off to the bullpen. There would be a more important October assignment ahead, he was promised.

That moment arrived early in Friday’s Game 2 of the American League Division Series, with Houck summoned after starter Chris Sale surrendered five runs in the first inning. The 25-year-old Houck restored order with five strong frames of relief, picking up his first postseason win in Boston’s 14-6 victory over the Rays at Tropicana Field.

“I definitely had a little butterflies at first, but once I got out there and threw my warmup pitches, I felt like I was pretty comfortable,” Houck said. “I live for those moments where you’re in a different stadium, people yelling at you, all that stuff. I love that environment, and I love going out there and competing with my brothers.”

Houck’s performance had a gem tucked inside: His fourth-inning strikeout of Manuel Margot marked his 27th consecutive out recorded, a hidden perfect game scattered across four appearances. Houck retired three more batters before his “perfecto” was broken up by a Wander Franco single with two outs in the fifth inning, ending at 30 consecutive batters.

“I had no idea, to be honest,” Houck said. “I was more just focused on getting outs and just putting the team in the best place to win.”

Houck began that string on Sept. 28 at Baltimore, retiring Pat Valaika on a pop fly for the last out of the eighth inning. He retired all 15 Nationals faced in the penultimate game of the regular season on Oct. 2 at Washington, striking out eight. Houck then appeared in relief during the AL Wild Card Game against the Yankees, working a clean seventh inning.

“Great decision taking him out of the perfect game, right, so we could use him later?” manager Alex Cora said, with a chuckle. “He has been amazing. The fastball, the slider, the split -- he doesn’t panic. We’ve been using him a lot, and we have to be careful with that, but today was the perfect day for him to go out there and help us win a ballgame.”

Ji-Man Choi hit a sixth-inning homer off Houck, who tossed 61 pitches (44 for strikes), striking out five.

“Tanner Houck was really tough,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “It looked like he had all of his stuff working. He looked like he had a great breaking ball. He just kept us off balance. He came in and did a tremendous job for them.”

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Houck is the fifth Red Sox pitcher in the Expansion Era (since 1961) to retire at least 27 batters in a row within a single season (regular season and postseason).

The last was Koji Uehara, who retired 37 straight batters from Aug. 17-Sept. 13, 2013. Mike Timlin (28, Sept. 22-Oct. 15, 2003), Hideo Nomo (31, May 25-31, 2001) and Pedro Martinez (30, Sept. 10-15, 1999) also achieved the feat.

“What [Houck] did was unbelievable,” said Kiké Hernandez, whose four extra-base hits set a Red Sox postseason record. “He kept us in the game and gave us a chance to come back.”

Houck’s performances -- combined with abbreviated outings from Eduardo Rodríguez and Sale in the first two games of this ALDS -- present an argument for him to rejoin the rotation later in this series, or should Boston advance.

“He’s getting better and better,” Cora said.

Houck made three starts in September, then shifted to the bullpen as Boston transitioned into a four-man rotation for the stretch drive. Houck’s highest pitch total in September was 71, on Sept. 15 at Seattle. He tossed a season-high 90 pitches in back-to-back starts on Aug. 24 vs. Minnesota and Aug. 29 at Cleveland.

“I’ve always trusted A.C. with his game plan and his vision,” Houck said. “He is, it always seems, 10 steps ahead of everyone. You’ve got to trust him. … I was more than willing to come out of the perfect game and just be ready for a bigger moment. I’m truly blessed to have him trust me enough to put me in those moments.”