Jake Odorizzi was dominant for the first six innings of his start against the Boston Red Sox on Saturday. A no-hitter was out of the question after a leadoff single by Will Middlebrooks in the fourth inning, but he had gone six innings allowing just three baserunners–on that hit, a hit-by-pitch, and an Evan Longoria error–while striking out six. His fastball and split-change looked as effective as they had ever been, and combining them with a good slider and the occasional curveball had left Boston Red Sox hitters flummoxed. Odorizzi was also in great shape in regards to pitch count having thrown just 73 pitches, and an eight-inning outing or even a complete game was certainly within the realm of possibility. However, then the seventh inning began and things suddenly got harder for the 24 year old right-hander.
Odorizzi took seven pitches to force David Ortiz to ground out and Yoenis Cespedes to strike out, and he was well on his way to another strong inning. Then he walked his first batter of the game, Daniel Nava, thanks to a couple pitches that just missed. It was an annoying at-bat, but after how well Odorizzi had pitched, he certainly deserved the benefit of the doubt. Allen Craig followed for Boston and Odorizzi was able to get strikes on him with sliders and split-changeups, but three fastballs that missed well out of the zone led to Odorizzi’s second straight walk. Yet while Joe Maddon and Jim Hickey did not look happy in the dugout, they didn’t move and no one began warming in the Rays’ bullpen.
Maybe it was the score–the Rays were up 7-0, so even if Odorizzi allowed a three-run homer to Mookie Betts, they would still be up 7-3. We’ve seen Maddon show a quick hook at other times, though, so that could not have been the entire reason. This was a test for Jake Odorizzi. Odorizzi had done so many things right this season. His issues the second time through the batting order were well documented, but he overcame them and made them the last thing on our minds as he became an excellent major league pitcher right before our eyes. From May 9th to August 20th, Odorizzi 3.06 ERA in a span of 108.2 innings pitched, and his disaster outing in the start following that stretch does not diminish how far he has come. Exactly how far, though, was the question on the minds of Maddon and Hickey. Odorizzi was struggling, with his fastball command going and his outing clearly nearing its end. With a seven-run lead, though, it was the perfect opportunity for an experiment. A frontline pitcher battles through fatigue, worse-than-usual stuff, and whatever problems face him to continue keeping his team in the game. Could Jake Odorizzi be such a pitcher?
Odorizzi proceeded to walk Mookie Betts and the bases were loaded. The problem remained the same: he simply could not get his fastball down in the zone consistently. It was time for Joe Maddon and Jim Hickey to raise the alarm bells. Hickey came to the mound to talk to Odorizzi while both Jeff Beliveau and Kirby Yates started warming in the bullpen. If one more batter reached base, Maddon’s visit to Odorizzi would have been next, and it would have marked the end of Odorizzi’s outing. Even in a seven-run game, Odorizzi had ventured too far to astray to keep the Rays’ faith and suddenly the pressure was on him. Odorizzi had been given a chance, and he had blown it. Well, not quite yet. As Beliveau and Yates warmed up, Odorizzi pitched to Xander Bogaerts. He started him with a fastball strike before throwing far from his best slider. But Bogaerts swung and popped it out, and Odorizzi had escaped the inning.
It was not pretty and it certainly was not effortless, but Jake Odorizzi got the final out of that seventh inning. He proved to the coaching staff and he proved to himself that even when his stuff began to fade, there was another gear–one that he had not seen many times before–that he could harness. Hopefully next time, it comes out sooner and the situation does not get so out of hand. In fact, the Rays would have obviously preferred that Odorizzi had never run into a problem spot to begin with and had departed after eight innings of one-hit baseball. However, situations like that seventh inning do inevitably happen, and maybe Joe Maddon will show Odorizzi a little more faith now that he saw him get that final out in the seventh frame. The first time is always the toughest, and Odorizzi got through it. We will have to see what that means for him moving forward.