The Red Sox made a solid acquisition when they traded for Eduardo Rodriguez in 2014. Rodriguez made his first start in nearly two years on Thursday and showed why he is a key piece of the Red Sox rotation. Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Eduardo Rodriguez’s first start of the 2021 season on Thursday did wonders for the heart (figuratively and literally), and for the Boston Red Sox fortunes this year.

“With him on the mound, we have a chance to win. He’s a great pitcher,” Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez said after the 7-3 win over Baltimore.

So, how did a great pitcher – not originally drafted or signed by the Red Sox, and not a pricey free agent – end up with Boston?

The story involves the Portland Sea Dogs, and begins with an athlete who was good enough to walk onto a Division I college basketball team … but did not.

In 2005, Texas Tech pitcher Dustin Richardson, a 6-foot-6 junior, took part in a reality TV show with the school’s basketball coach, Bobby Knight, trying out for a walk-on spot with the basketball team.

Richardson reportedly did well in the tryout, but he was already playing another sport. And the school was not going to let a star pitcher play basketball. “I knew if I wasn’t playing baseball, I would’ve gotten some playing time with Knight,” Richardson told milb.com.

Instead, Richardson pitched the 2006 college season, then was drafted by the Red Sox in the fifth round that summer.

In 2008, Richardson was part of a Sea Dogs rotation with the likes of future Red Sox pitchers Justin Masterson and Michael Bowden. Richardson led the team in strikeouts with 114.

Richardson reached Boston as a reliever in 2009 for three games, and then in 2010 for 26 games (4.15 ERA). But General Manager Theo Epstein traded Richardson in the fall for struggling Marlins left-hander Andrew Miller, who had a career 5.84 ERA.

Miller reinvented himself as a lights-out reliever. He collected a World Series ring with Boston in 2013, although he missed the postseason because of injury.

Richardson, meanwhile, never reached the majors again.

With Miller, Boston had a valuable reliever and, when the Red Sox tumbled in 2014, Miller became prime trade bait. He was shipped to Baltimore.

“There were a lot of good prospects we could have gotten for Miller,” then General Manager Ben Cherington told ESPN. “We like Rodriguez the best.”

Thus, Eduardo Rodriguez, then 21, joined the Red Sox.

Rodriguez had been pitching in Double-A for the Orioles, with a 4.79 ERA. Still, he was considered a prized prospect, and one Orioles website, camdenchat.com, prophesied that “this could be the kind of thing the O’s really come to regret.”

Miller was stellar for Baltimore, which won the American League East, eventually losing to Kansas City in the ALCS. Miller hit free agency and signed with the Yankees.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez was assigned to Portland, under the tutelage of pitching coach Bob Kipper, who was quickly impressed.

“He generates electric stuff,” Kipper said.

Kipper offered one suggestion to the young lefty: Throw the change-up more. Rodriguez listened, then sizzled with the Sea Dogs and reached the majors the next year, going 10-6 with a 3.85 ERA in 21 starts for the Red Sox.

More improvements would come: 13 wins and a World Series ring in 2018, 19 wins in 2019.

Then came 2020 and a reminder that the COVID-19 pandemic was more than an inconvenience to the baseball season. Rodriguez caught the virus and suffered a further complication – myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart. He did not pitch last year, and his return this season was postponed a week after dealing with a case of “dead arm’ at the end of spring training.

So, Thursday’s start was special. Rodriguez admitted to being too excited at the beginning, allowing a two-run homer in the first inning.

“After the first inning, everything went back to normal,” said Rodriguez. His final four innings featured only two more hits and one more run. He struck out seven and walked none. And, apparently, Rodriguez still remembers his lessons from Portland. He threw 25 change-ups – 32 percent of his pitches.

“That’s his best pitch,” Vazquez said. “It’s tough to hit a good change-up.”

A tough-to-hit Eduardo Rodriguez is going to be quite a boost to Boston’s hopes of being a contender again.

The Boston Red Sox picked up Garrett Whitlock in the Rule 5 draft and he has made an immediate impact. Steven Senne/Associated Press

GARRETT WHITLOCK appears to be the team’s latest young pitching phenom. And while Epstein can take credit for Miller, and Cherington for Rodriguez, it’s Boston’s chief baseball officer, Chaim Bloom, and his staff who deserve the kudos for Whitlock.

Whitlock, a Yankees minor league pitcher before this season, last pitched for Double-A Trenton in 2019 (going 2-1 vs. the Sea Dogs). His season ended in July of that year because of an elbow injury and, eventually, Tommy John surgery. The Yankees did not add him to their 40-man roster, and Boston grabbed him in the Rule 5 draft last December – meaning Boston must keep Whitlock on the major league roster all season or send him back to the Yankees.

That seems likely.

Whitlock followed Rodriguez on Thursday with two perfect innings (three strikeouts). He has a mid-90s sinking fastball and a deadly change-up. Instead of just hanging onto a roster spot, he is bolstering the bullpen and could compete for a rotation spot next year.


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