When Nathan Eovaldi and Garrett Whitlock went down with injuries earlier this month, the Red Sox found themselves needing to plug 40% of their starting rotation. Yet, there was virtually no discussion about the most obvious candidate.

Entering spring training, Tanner Houck was almost immediately penciled into the starting rotation. He pitched well through the first month, posting a 4.32 ERA in four starts, but eventually he and Whitlock were swapped, in part because of Houck was unvaccinated and couldn’t pitch in a late-April series at Toronto.

Houck has remained in the bullpen ever since, even though he seemed a natural first man up to slide back into the rotation when injuries started piling. While the Red Sox hopes= he can eventually become a stalwart in the rotation, for now they view him as the solution to a different and equally important problem.

The Red Sox believe they’ve found their closer, and for now, that’s what he’ll remain.

“It’s just where we’re at and where we’re going to stay,” said Red Sox Manager Alex Cora. “This was a decision we made a few weeks ago, and for now we’re sticking to it.”

Cora said the decision to keep Houck in the bullpen was largely a product of the club’s current roster construction. Through the first month, the bullpen consistently coughed up leads in close games and in the late innings. Houck has been able to slam the door in games that the Red Sox might have let slip away earlier.


More important was the progress made by the club’s top minor league starters, particularly Kutter Crawford and Josh Winckowski. With those two ready to contribute at the big league level and others like Connor Seabold and Brayan Bello waiting in the wings – plus the impending return of Chris Sale – the Red Sox found they had more than enough starting pitchers to get by, even with the recent run of injuries.

“This team needed this as far as structure; for a month and a half we struggled getting 27 outs,” Cora said. “You can talk about the offense and we didn’t hit, but we didn’t finish games from the mound, too.

“We feel more comfortable and there are other guys who have to step up, and they know it. But as a manager, where I’m at making decisions as a group here, it’s a lot better now than a month ago.”

Houck has clearly made a difference. He’s recorded five saves in his last five appearances, including two during last weekend’s series against the St. Louis Cardinals where stamped out late rallies that nearly threatened to spill out of control. Before Houck’s emergence, Red Sox relievers had combined to go just 10 for 19 in save opportunities.

For his part, Houck says he appreciates the stability afforded by his new role, but beyond that, he’s trying not to overthink things and continue to pitch like he always has.

“I’m not trying to make the situation bigger than what I need to make it,” Houck said. “For me, I see it as I still have to go out there, I still have to get strike one, I still have to get three outs just like every other inning. So for me, it’s about staying on the attack, going after hitters and trying to execute pitches to the best of my ability.”


Whether Houck remains the closer the rest of the season remains to be seen. The Red Sox could conceivably move Whitlock to the closer role once Sale returns from injury, and Houck’s continued inability to pitch in Toronto could be problematic down the line.

But for now, Houck has helped shore up a potentially fatal flaw, and fans should be able to breathe a little easier the next time the Red Sox have a slim lead heading into the ninth inning.

JETER DOWNS was optioned back to Triple-A Worcester on Thursday, with Christian Arroyo (COVID IL) likely to be activated before Boston’s game Friday in Cleveland.

Downs made his major league debut Wednesday. He played third base for the first time as a professional and went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts against the Tigers, leaving five men on base. Downs spent three days on the major league roster while filling in until either Arroyo or Kiké Hernández (right hip flexor strain) was ready to be activated.

“That was the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Downs said after the game. “I still can’t believe the game is over. It felt so fast. It didn’t turn out the way I wanted to, but oh well. The team got the win and that’s the most important thing.”

Boston acquired the 23-year-old shortstop prospect from the Dodgers in the Mookie Betts trade on Feb. 10, 2022. He is batting just .180 in Triple-A with a .297 on-base percentage, .397 slugging percentage, .694 OPS, 11 homers, six doubles, one triple, 35 runs and 21 RBI. He has struck out 31.1% of the time.

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