Houck further proves himself as a solid starter in series-finale win

May 26th, 2024

BOSTON -- Around this time last season, there was question as to whether Tanner Houck would remain in the rotation or rejoin the bullpen, where he spent most of 2022.

One year later, Houck has left no room to question where he belongs on this staff. Instead, he’s cemented himself atop both the rotation and all MLB starters, and put himself into early Cy Young contender discussion.

His latest ace-showing came in Sunday’s finale against the Brewers at Fenway Park, a 2-1 win to salvage the series and close out the homestand. Houck gave up one run over six innings for his ninth quality start of the season, lowering his season ERA to 1.90.

“I mean the lineup is relentless,” manager Alex Cora said. “They just keep putting the ball in play. And they will do little things. We saw it, right? He got some swing and misses, he was able to make pitches, and just another great start by Tanner.”

Houck opened the game in an uncharacteristic way, throwing a first-pitch ball to four of the five batters he faced in the first inning. The battle from behind continued throughout his outing and Houck finished the day with a 53.8 percent first-pitch strike rate, down from his season-long rate of 64.7 percent.

“Didn’t get a lot of first-pitch strikes, was kind of battling from behind the whole time,” Houck said. “So something to kind of continue to work on and continue to get better with. But all in all, I battled.”

Under the guidance of new pitching coach Andrew Bailey, Houck has revamped his arsenal by dumping his four-seam and instead prioritizing his secondary pitches. The sinker and slider have become Houck’s bread and butter, and Sunday was no exception. The proof came early in his first matchup against William Contreras, when Houck got the Brewers’ slugger to ground out on a 93 mph sinker. Contreras, who entered the day with a .370 average against sinkers and .382 on the slider, went just 1-for-3 with a single against Houck.

“Felt like all three pitches were really good today,” Houck said. “I’d argue that my split was probably my best pitch for today, to right and left. And to say that, pretty gratifying. Especially after all the hard work I’ve put in to develop that pitch over the past few years.

“So really happy with the outcome of today’s game and managed the ballgame whenever they got runners in scoring position and the defense picked me up, making some great plays, some smart plays as well.”

Boston scored just one run with Houck on the mound, a pattern that’s become all too familiar for the right-hander this year. Entering Sunday’s start, Houck pitched in five games with the offense scoring two or fewer runs, and has been given six or more in just two starts.

“I think regardless of the score, you gotta go out there and you gotta make your pitches and execute,” Houck said. “So with a one-run game, a 0-0 game, you got to be maybe a little bit more fine, really bear down and execute. But ultimately, if you go out there and make your pitches, whether you’re up 10-0 or it’s a 0-0 ballgame, I like my chances.”

After hitting a triple to the triangle in center to open the fourth, Wilyer Abreu came around to score on Rafael Devers’ sacrifice fly. Both Boston and Milwaukee stayed quiet on offense until the eighth, when the Red Sox opened the inning with a double and back-to-back singles, with Ceddanne Rafaela scoring the winning run off Brewers reliever Elvis Peguero on Jarren Duran’s RBI single. Peguero entered the day with five straight appearances of scoreless outings and 13 of his last 15.

“Just trying to put a good swing on the ball, I mean he’s a really good pitcher and I was just thinking that he was throwing a lot of strikes to me, so I just got to get a pitch early and get a good swing on it,” Duran said.

The eighth-inning offensive boost could in part be attributed to some extra juice flowing through the dugout following a benches-clearing incident between reliever Chris Martin and Brewers’ first-base coach Quintin Berry after the two exchanged words at the end of the seventh.

“Yeah obviously you don’t want anything like that to happen, but when it does, you try to feed off that energy, and I’m glad we won today,” Martin said.