Red Sox: Don’t be discouraged by Phillips Valdez extra-innings meltdown

Phillips Valdez of the Boston Red Sox. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
Phillips Valdez of the Boston Red Sox. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images) /

Red Sox reliever Phillips Valdez melted down in an extra-innings loss.

Phillips Valdez has been one of the few bright spots in the Boston Red Sox bullpen but his latest outing is one he’d prefer to forget.

The right-hander was tagged with the first loss of his career Thursday night against the Toronto Blue Jays. Valdez took the mound in the 10th inning of a tie game and quickly unraveled, allowing four runs (three earned) on two hits, both of which were home runs, with three walks.

Valdez had entered the game allowing only two earned runs all season but surpassed that total in his one inning of work, raising his ERA from 0.86 to 2.05 with one bad outing. He had only allowed one home run before coughing up two in this game. The three walks were a career high and the first time this year that Valdez had allowed multiple walks in the same inning.

The results were certainly uncharacteristic of what we’ve come to expect from the breakout star of Boston’s bullpen but the circumstances were far from typical. MLB implemented a new rule that places a runner on second base to begin extra innings, putting the young reliever in a pressure-packed spot from the start.

Valdez has made 15 appearances this season and has been given a clean inning to start with in nine of them. He’s been spectacular this season when beginning an inning but the results have been less consistent when Valdez has been tasked with entering in the middle of an inning with runners on. He’s managed to escape trouble on three previous occasions where he entered with only one runner on but the three appearances where he’s entered with multiple runners on base, Valdez has allowed six of those seven inherited runners to score.

A prime example was his previous outing against the Atlanta Braves this week. Valdez was sent in with the bases loaded and nobody out. He immediately gave up a bases loaded triple before striking out the side. The triple would have been harmless if it led off an inning since Valdez would have stranded the runner at third.

The bases weren’t nearly as crowded against the Blue Jays but entering with a runner in scoring position during extra-innings comes with significantly more pressure than when the bases are loaded in the fifth inning.

Valdez was put in a tough spot and you could see it in how carefully he approached the first batter he faced. He relied exclusively on his trusty changeup, which he used to try to paint the corners with all five pitches to Cavan Biggio. One of those pitches was fouled off and Valdez didn’t get the call on a couple of pitches close to the edge, leading to a walk.

The next batter grounded into a fielder’s choice to first base which could have been a potential double-play if Michael Chavis had been able to field it cleanly. Instead, it put two in scoring position with only one out and the game on the line.

This is where some of the blame gets pinned on the manager instead of the pitcher. Why was Valdez even throwing to Teoscar Hernandez, the hottest hitter in the Blue Jays lineup, with first base open? Loading the bases for the struggling Vladimir Guerrero Jr. sets up a force play at each base and a possible double-play. The younger Vlad isn’t as fleet of foot as his father was and he’s among the league leaders in grounding into double-plays over the last two years.

After a brief discussion, Ron Roenicke choose to have his reliever pitch to Hernandez, who blasted a three-run homer into the bullpen. Yes, it was a poor pitch that Valdez left over the middle of the plate but it was a pitch he never should have been trying to make when intentionally walking the guy who leads the league in home runs was a clear alternative.

Guerrero ended up striking out – not the inning-ending double-play we wanted but there were no runners on by that point after Hernandez cleared the bases.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr. followed with a solo home run to extend the lead to four. If Valdez had intentionally walked Hernandez to load the bases and Vlad didn’t cooperate with the double-play, would Gurriel have hit a grand slam, leaving the outcome the same either way?

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We’ll never know, although it’s fair to wonder how rattled Valdez was by the Hernandez home run. Maybe he doesn’t leave a sinker up high in the zone if he hadn’t been deflated by allowing three runs to score. Valdez walked consecutive batters, something he hadn’t done all season, following the Gurriel Jr. homer before finally escaping the inning so he was clearly shaken.

How Valdez fares when he enters in the middle of an inning is something to keep an eye on. He owns a strong strikeout rate of 9.8 K/9 and, until last night, he hasn’t been particularly wild. These are traits that would lead you to believe he’s an ideal candidate to escape these types of jams.

He doesn’t throw hard, relying on a sinking fastball instead of the four-seam that has more velocity, but he owns one of the game’s best changeups. That’s his put-away pitch and he’s holding hitters to a .178 batting average and .257 wOBA with his changeup. He’s not the prototypical late-inning power pitcher but Valdez has the talent to thrive in that role.

A pitcher with his limited major league experience isn’t often asked to bail the team out in these situations but unfortunately, the Red Sox don’t have other trustworthy options. There are going to be times when the team is going to look for him to buckle down and clean up someone else’s mess.

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Until last night, Valdez had been lights-out and earned the chance to be counted on in that spot. If it weren’t for the controversial extra-innings rule change and his manager’s questionable decision, the outcome may have been very different but those are challenges he could face again. How he responds to the pressure of this role is worth monitoring but we shouldn’t be discouraged based on one disastrous outing.