September 27, 2022

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Backed by defense and best friend, Houck fires gem

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BOSTON — The Red Sox no longer talk as much about the promise of Tanner Houck.

These days, the conversation shifts more to the results they expect and need from the 25-year-old righty.

This made Saturday an important step forward after a clunky first start of the season at Yankee Stadium in which Houck got only 10 outs.

Standing on the Fenway Park mound for the first time this season, Houck controlled the Twins throughout 5 2/3 scoreless innings, holding them to two hits while walking three and striking out four as Boston stifled Minnesota, 4-0.

“I made some adjustments that I’m super happy with, and was pounding the zone a lot more. Obviously I’m continuing to grow and take steps in the right direction,” said Houck. “So I’m super happy with how it went tonight, and I’ll get ready for five days from now.”

That’s a nice routine for Houck to be able to settle into. Last year, he served as the ultimate definition of a swingman, bouncing from the rotation to the bullpen, and from the Majors to Triple-A. That cycle rinsed and repeated until the postseason, when Houck was counted on for high-leverage outs.

This season, the plan is that he will be a fixture in the rotation and on the Major League roster.

The double-play grounder (two of them) and a strike-em-out, throw-em-out DP were Houck’s friends on a day that the Twins never sent more than four batters to the plate against him in an inning.

Houck fell one out shy of his first six-inning outing since recording two of them in his September call-up season of 2020.

“They showed some discipline early on but at the end it was weak contact,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “He was able to give us 5 2/3 [innings] and pass the baton to the bullpen and the bullpen finished it.”

Was Houck dominant? The modest five whiffs on the 35 swings the Twins took against his 89 pitches show he wasn’t quite that.

Did he keep the Twins — who clearly came in with the mindset of being patient — off-balanced? The 15 called strikes paint the picture that he did, as did a spray chart which shows Houck hitting several different quadrants of the plate.

Did Houck have plenty of life on his pitches? His fastball maxed out at 96.2 mph and his sinker hit 95, so that answers that.

“What he did was, even when he got behind and even when got into these three-ball counts, he won those early in the game,” credited Twins manager Rocco Baldelli. “I think almost every lefty got to a three-ball count the first time through or maybe even more than that. That’s usually a good sign for us. Today it wasn’t.

“He got to the end of those at-bats, whether it be 3-1, 3-2, and made good pitches and either got a swing and a miss or got some weak contact and found a way to pitch through. That’s impressive.”

Houck’s pitch mix is why the club believes he can be a starter all season rather than the swingman role he was so effective in last season.

This was the allotment of pitches for Houck on Saturday: He threw 30 fastballs, 27 sliders, 19 sinkers and 13 splitters.

“I was super happy with where everything was at,” Houck said. “Like I said, mechanics are coming along to where I feel a lot more confident, it’s easier to repeat. And I’m just truly excited for what the season still has to bring.”

Tabbed as the No. 3 starter for a rotation that currently lacks two impact injured veterans in Chris Sale and James Paxton, Houck is out to prove he can be a top-three of the rotation type of pitcher.

Clearly, he has some believers in the clubhouse.

“He didn’t have his best slider and he still didn’t give up any runs,” said Xander Bogaerts. “That shows you how impressive he can be. He can be really good for a long time.”

Baton to bestie
For Houck, one of the thrills of this one is that he essentially passed the baton to his best friend on the team in Garrett Whitlock, who got the final seven outs. In between, lefty Matt Strahm served as the bridge with three outs.

Whitlock and Houck are again the two young guns on a veteran-laden staff and Cora will rely heavily on both.

“Houck is just nasty and then obviously you have Mr. Four-Year [contract extension] Whit over here, just throwing bowling balls and doing what he does,” said Alex Verdugo, who mauled his third homer of the season to aid the cause. “It’s a lot of fun out there when they are pitching and you know not too many balls are probably going to be hit to the outfield.”

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