Nathan Eovaldi was never supposed to be the Red Sox postseason ace.
With all the starting pitchers the Red Sox already had when he was acquired via trade from the Tampa Bay Rays at the 2018 deadline, Eovaldi was the afterthought, a fill-in, the cherry on top of an already-robust sundae. They had David Price, to whom they had given the most lucrative contract in pitching history to that point, 2016 Cy Young-winner Rick Porcello, Chris Sale, for whom they’d depleted the farm, and the kid with potential, Eduardo Rodriguez.
However, from a postseason perspective, the Red Sox didn’t have much going for them. They’d won back-to-back division titles in 2016 and 2017 but had lost six of seven ALDS games between the two Octobers.
Price had one of the worst postseason reputations in baseball history and Sale had no postseason experience when he was acquired for the 2017 season. Porcello’s teams had lost every one of the 11 games he’d pitched in between his 2011 postseason debut and the 2017 ALDS. Rodriguez’s entire postseason experience was that he had faced two batters in Game 2 of the 2017 ALDS and allowed two earned runs without recording an out.
Despite the abundance of failure by his new rotation-mates, the hard-throwing Eovaldi was still the odd man out when he was exchanged for Jalen Beeks. He certainly wasn’t a marquee player, and he had no postseason experience whatsoever.
How did Nathan Eovaldi become the Red Sox postseason ace?
Almost immediately, Eovaldi changed the narrative. He pitched seven innings of one-run ball in Game 3 of the 2018 ALDS while his teammates scored 16 runs. In the ALCS, exactly three years before his performance on Saturday, he pitched six innings of two-run ball and the Sox won 8-2. In Game 5, he made a scoreless relief appearance.
Then, in the World Series, Eovaldi made relief appearances in each of the first three games. The third, in Game 3, was a stunning six-inning battle in which he threw more pitches than that night’s starter, Porcello. Thanks to Eovaldi’s magnificent show, the Red Sox and Dodgers played the longest game in postseason history, both by hours and innings. Having been there to witness it in person, it was breathtaking.
Eovaldi’s teammates were so moved by his Game 3 performance that Alex Cora had a line of pitchers outside his office the next day, begging him to let them pitch. And Eovaldi, who had been scheduled to start Game 4, still tried to convince Cora to let him take the mound again.
After a dominant 2021 regular season, Eovaldi was the natural choice for the winner-takes-all Wild Card game against his former team, the New York Yankees. Over 5 1/3 innings, he only allowed one run, struck out eight, and didn’t issue a walk.
In the ALDS last weekend, Eovaldi again started a Game 3, pitching five innings of two-run ball, again striking out eight.
Coming into the ALCS, the man known as Nasty Nate had pitched in eight postseason games, started four, and thrown 32 2/3 innings. He had a 1.93 ERA, and the Red Sox were 7-1 in his games.
In fact, his start in Game 2 of the ALCS was the first time he’s ever allowed more than two earned runs in a postseason game (he allowed three). If he hadn’t been forced to wait 40 minutes in between the first and second inning, he might have had an easier time of it, but he still went 5 1/3 innings.
On Saturday, the Red Sox beat the Astros 9-5. In doing so, they became 5-0 in Eovaldi’s postseason starts. In franchise history, the Red Sox had never won each of a pitcher’s first five postseason starts. Not Babe Ruth, Pedro Martinez, Jon Lester, or any of Eovaldi’s 2018 rotation-mates.
When you think about everything Eovaldi has overcome – two Tommy John surgeries, numerous injuries, bouncing around from team to team – what he’s done for Boston becomes even more incredible than it is at face value.
Eovaldi’s unexpected postseason dominance is the pitching equivalent of David Ortiz’s October reputation; two seemingly-minor additions who made major impacts. Ortiz was released by the Minnesota Twins and paid next-to-nothing in the early years of his Red Sox career. Almost immediately, he, too, flipped the script when it mattered most, cementing himself as the most clutch hitter of all time. And while other overpaid “superstars” came and went from the Sox, he outlasted them all. The Red Sox have four championships in a 15-year span in large part because of these two.
Like Ortiz, Eovaldi was an heir unapparent, but it makes sense; the best things come when you least expect them.