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Boston Herald
Boston Herald
24 Feb 2024
Mac Cerullo

NextImg:Garrett Whitlock passes first test of spring as Red Sox fall to Orioles 4-3

FORT MYERS, Fla. — When Garrett Whitlock took the mound for his first outing of the spring, he naturally wanted to perform well and he obviously wanted to be sure his pitches were on point.

But the big test was how he felt when it came time to get back out for the second inning, and Saturday marked a huge step in the right direction.

“Last year I felt like it was really hard for me to get my hip loose and everything going for multiple innings,” Whitlock said. “But now I feel back to normal and feeling good.”

Limited by injury for most of his tenure in Boston, Whitlock is back to full health and aiming to keep it that way as he gears up for the biggest season of his professional career so far. Despite a rocky first inning Whitlock’s spring debut was ultimately a success, as the 27-year-old allowed one run over two innings in what wound up being a 4-3 Red Sox loss to the Baltimore Orioles on a Colton Cowser walk-off home run.

“Overall a good one,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “The quality of the pitches were good, so now we move on to the next one.”

Whitlock was hit hard in the first inning, allowing a solo home run to Adley Rutschman along with three hard hit balls to the outfield, but came back strong with a scoreless second. He struck out two in that frame, including baseball’s No. 1 prospect Jackson Holliday, and finished with just the one hit allowed and no walks.

“Felt healthy, so happy about that, things were good,” Whitlock said. “One changeup that I tried to throw for a strike rather than ripping it and other than that I thought it was good.”

Prior to the game Cora indicated Whitlock will be among a handful of young arms in contention for a spot in the starting rotation, a role the Red Sox have envisioned for him since he was acquired in the Rule 5 Draft ahead of the 2021 season.

Repeated injuries have prevented him from seizing that role, but while in past years he pressed to be that guy, Whitlock says he’s now taking a different approach he learned from former big league pitcher and fellow Alabama native Adam Warren.

“He told me to adapt that mindset of that Swiss army knife where it’s like just throw me in anything and I’ll go out there and do it,” Whitlock said. “Once you adapt that mindset it frees everything else up where I don’t feel this chip or this burden like ‘aw I’ve got to be a starter,’ or ‘aw I’ve got to be a closer.’”

Even with that being the case, Whitlock is still a competitive guy and wants to win a starting job. That could ultimately put him on a collision course with Tanner Houck, his best friend and one of the other top contenders for a rotation spot, but Whitlock isn’t worried about the competition affecting their relationship.

“Nah, I mean, we live together,” Whitlock said. “It’s one of those things where we’re on the same team and it’s not like we’re both fighting for our lives, so we enjoy the competition, we play games at the house all the time where we’re competing against each other. It’s fun, and our friendship, he knows I’ve got his back whether he gets the starting job or I get the starting job, so we’re not worried about that, it doesn’t affect our friendship at all.”

Ceddanne Rafaela has made his name by delivering highlight reel plays in center field, and Saturday he nearly delivered one of the best of his career when he almost robbed Adley Rutschman of his first-inning home run.

Rafaela just barely mistimed his jump, and after the game he said he probably makes the catch 99 times out of 100.

“I was pretty close,” Rafaela said. “I jumped late.”

The Red Sox already know what Rafaela is capable of defensively, and if he makes the team it will be because he’s shown improvement at the plate. Though he went 0 for 3 on Saturday, Cora said he liked what he saw regardless.

“Good at bats, from 0-2 to 3-2, hit a rocket to third base, and then he did it again in the third at bat, and in the first one he got to a 3-1 count, he took a shot, and on the 3-2 pitch he aced that pitch and he struck out,” Cora said. “So three quality at bats.”

Not many Red Sox fans knew who Mark Contreras was prior to this weekend, but the newly acquired outfielder has made a loud statement by homering in each of his first two games with the club.

After smoking a three-run shot against Northeastern University on Friday, Contreras followed it up with a solo shot off Jonathan Heasley in the top of the third.

Contreras finished the day 1 for 2, Bobby Dalbec (2 for 2) and Nathan Hickey (2 for 3) each had good days as well, and David Hamilton drove in what was at the time the go-ahead run in the top of the eighth before Orioles prospect Colton Cowser hit a two-run, walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth off minor league reliever Nate Tellier.

Three relievers expected to contend for spots in the Red Sox bullpen made their spring debuts and all pitched well. Cooper Criswell followed Whitlock and allowed one run on two hits over two innings with a strikeout, Isaiah Campbell pitched a scoreless fifth with a hit, a walk and a strikeout, and Justin Slaten pitched a scoreless sixth with one hit allowed.

“They did a good job. I think we only walked one guy,” Cora said. “Criswell was good, the slider, the sinker. We threw strikes, it was good to see.”

The Red Sox will play a pair of split squad games Sunday afternoon, facing the Minnesota Twins in their Grapefruit League home opener and the Atlanta Braves on the road in North Port. Both games are scheduled to begin at 1:05 p.m.