Sox believe Houck solution to late-inning woes

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Jun. 23—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 badly as the Red Sox needed coverage, 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's inability to pitch in the late-April road series in Toronto due to his being unvaccinated.

Houck has remained in the bullpen ever since, but once the injuries started piling up he would have seemed a natural first man up to slide back into the rotation. He's certainly bounced back between the two roles successfully in the past, but while the club hopes he can eventually become a stalwart in the rotation in the coming years, for now the Red Sox 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, and Houck has been able to slam the door in a lot of wins 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," he continued. "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. Entering Tuesday he'd recorded five straight saves since being inserted into the closer role, including two during last weekend's series against the St. Louis Cardinals where he came on and 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 back 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.

Email: mcerullo@northofboston.com. Twitter: @MacCerullo.