Inside Red Sox starter Tanner Houck’s masterful shutout

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Inside Red Sox starter Tanner Houck’s masterful shutout

BOSTON — Early last season, Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora called Tanner Houck into his office. The team was considering moving the right-hander back to the bullpen again.

Houck had a tough start to the season with a 5.48 ERA in eight starts through May 15. The up-and-down nature of his performances and lack of consistent starts made him a logical choice. Four years into his big-league career, he still struggled when facing a lineup the third time through the order and failed to pitch deep into games regularly. Veteran James Paxton was returning from the injured list, and someone needed to move to the bullpen.

Houck said no.

“I remember the conversation, and it was one of the harder conversations that I think I’ve ever had,” the right-hander told The Athletic. “They asked me, and I knew where I wanted to be. I knew what I could do. The past few years, I definitely feel I haven’t lived up to it.”

Eleven months later, Houck stood on the mound at Fenway Park on Wednesday night to a standing ovation, the owner of a three-hit shutout in a masterful 2-0 win over the Cleveland Guardians.

The 27-year-old easily turned through the Guardians lineup in just one hour, 49 minutes, allowing only singles in the second, fourth and fifth innings. He issued no walks, struck out nine and registered 19 swings-and-misses. He needed just 94 pitches, 69 of which were strikes.

It marked the best start of his career.

“Seemed like he was just playing catch with Connor (Wong),” Cora said of Houck and his batterymate.

The Red Sox hadn’t had a starter throw a shutout since Michael Wacha’s gem on June 6, 2022. No Red Sox pitcher had accomplished the feat in under 100 pitches since Clay Buchholz on Aug. 31, 2014.

Houck was asked after the game if he’d heard of a “Maddux start,” a shutout thrown in under 100 pitches, the forte of Hall of Famer Greg Maddux. Houck said he hadn’t.

“I love it,” he said. “It’s definitely a compliment.”

Not much has been easy for the Red Sox early this season, but Houck cruised in utterly dominant fashion.

“I think it goes back to just not trying to overdo it, not trying to overthrow,” Houck said. “Everyone gets caught up now on velo, and ultimately, sometimes I just got to check myself and realize that I know if I’m throwing 91 to 95 miles per hour, it’s probably more beneficial because I get the same amount of movement, but I also command it better.”

The career trajectory from a first-round MLB Draft pick in 2017 to a pitcher who struggled with consistency for years to his current form as a rotation mainstay has not been a steady or easy path for Houck. After debuting late in the 2020 season, Houck bounced between the rotation and bullpen for the next two years. The Red Sox were willing to give him another chance in the rotation at the start of 2023, seeing his potential with a potent pitch mix, but last May his time was running out in the role.

Rather than acquiesce to the coaches’ decision to move him to the bullpen after a lackluster start to the year, Houck surprised them.

“I stood my ground,” he said. “I asked, ‘What have I got to do to stay in the rotation?’ And the first response was, ‘Continue to develop your third and fourth pitch and also be in the zone.’ I took it to heart. I’ve known it my entire career that I have to throw more strikes.”

Houck believed he was at a career crossroads early last spring and knew he needed to find a way to prove he was capable of a rotation spot.

“I definitely think in years past I was very much on the side of whatever the team needed,” he said. “I think, coming from their end, I think that they could see the fire and the passion to want to get better and want to be a starter and be a starter for a long time. So standing up for yourself, it’s a hard thing to do.”

Houck got his chance. Cora moved Nick Pivetta to the bullpen — Pivetta ended up having his own career renaissance — and Houck slowly but surely began to see better results as a starter. He continued to develop his cutter and splitter to complement his sinker-slider combo.

But in mid-June he was hit in the face by a comebacker, fracturing his cheekbone and sidelining him for two months. It was a scary scene, one that could have been much worse physically but also mentally. Houck was again resilient, and in late August, he worked his way back, returning to the rotation. He finished out the year with 21 starts, the first season of his career entirely in the rotation.

Yet even as this past spring training got underway, Houck did not have a lock on a rotation spot. Another productive spring with strong results earned him that spot.

Now through four starts with a 1.35 ERA, having walked two and struck out 28 in 26 2/3 innings, Houck appears to have found the groove he’s been looking for this whole time.

“I definitely feel like I’m trending in the right direction,” he said. “I’ll never say that there’s an endpoint. I think that’s complacency. And I think that there’s always room for improvement.”

That Houck’s complete game came on a day when the Red Sox were on fumes as a team and as a pitching staff made it even more meaningful. Before the game, the Red Sox placed Garrett Whitlock on the injured list with an oblique strain. They hope he’ll miss just the minimum 15 days, but he is the second starter, along with Pivetta, on the IL. The relievers have been taxed, and Houck’s effort gave a reprieve to a struggling, injured team.

“The bullpen needed it,” Cora said. He paused, then added, “We all needed it.”

Much of the attention in the rotation has been on young starter Brayan Bello, who signed a six-year, $55 million extension in the spring with a club option for a seventh season. It’s taken a while for Houck to pull it all together, but perhaps his time has come.

As Houck stood in the clubhouse after the game, the blaring music lowered and chief baseball officer Craig Breslow walked by and shook his hand. On the top shelf of Houck’s locker was the ball from the final out. Triston Casas had handed it to Houck after the game, and Houck tucked it into his back pocket for safekeeping.

“That’ll definitely go in a shadow box, a fond memory,” he said.

(Photo: Charles Krupa / Associated Press)