BOSTON -- Breaking news: David Ortiz is human.
For one game, Ortiz departed from his farewell-season assault on opposing pitching, rolling into a double play with the bases loaded, nobody out and the Boston Red Sox trailing by one run in the ninth inning Friday night at Fenway Park.
Hey, it happens. Even to 40-year-old franchise icons.
There was a silver lining, however, to a 2-1 defeat to the Minnesota Twins in which the Red Sox managed four hits, squandered a potentially dramatic ninth-inning rally and saw All-Star right fielder Mookie Betts exit because of a sore right knee that they hope won't linger for the rest of the season. And it might turn out to far supersede one dispiriting loss.
Left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez followed up his encouraging start last Saturday in New York with another solid outing, holding the Twins to two runs, six hits and one walk, striking out a season-high eight batters in 5 1/3 innings. In two starts since returning from his brief demotion to Triple-A, he has given up three runs and 10 hits in 12 1/3 innings.
"He pitched good tonight. I think he pitched good," Ortiz said. "I think he's back."
If so, well, watch out. The Sox counted on Rodriguez to be among their more reliable starting pitchers this year. Instead, he began the season on the disabled list, altered his mechanics to compensate for an injured right knee and got so out of whack that hitters were able to anticipate what he was about to throw.
But the Red Sox overhauled Rodriguez's delivery in Triple-A, getting him to hold his hands almost at eye level when he pitches out of the stretch rather than keeping them near his waist and raising them once he began coming to the plate. They also talked him into using his emerging slider more often and in situations where he might turn to his fastball or changeup.
Through his first six starts, Rodriguez threw his slider only 8 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Against the New York Yankees last weekend, 26 percent of his 97 pitches were sliders. He increased that frequency to 35 percent against the Twins, even using the slider to strike out Byron Buxton in the third inning, Eduardo Nunez in the fifth and Robbie Grossman in the sixth.
"I feel like I can locate it better where I want it -- outside and inside corner," Rodriguez said. "Just getting more confidence in it. I feel like I'm getting better and better every time I get on the mound."
Rodriguez did put at least one runner on base in every inning but the third and gave up a solo homer to Brian Dozier on a 94-mph fastball in the second inning. And he was at 95 pitches with one out in the sixth when manager John Farrell lifted him for reliever Heath Hembree, who walked lefty-mashing Dozier, gave up Miguel Sano's RBI double and put Rodriguez on the hook for the loss.
But while Rodriguez wasn't dominant, he continued to show improvement over his first six starts, when he posted an 8.59 ERA and looked entirely at a loss for what was happening.
"Since he's come back, he's added much more depth [to his slider]," Farrell said. "He was on the plate, three pitches, three quality pitches tonight for strikes. Felt like he did an outstanding job in the time he was on the mound."
Rodriguez's struggles were a big reason the Red Sox jumped at the chance to trade for lefty Drew Pomeranz last week. But president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has said the Sox weren't likely to acquire a starter as talented as Rodriguez when he's pitching to his potential.
Better late than never, Rodriguez might finally be reaching that level, which would deepen a starting rotation that has received better-than-expected performances from knuckleballer Steven Wright (2.67 ERA) and Rick Porcello (3.47) and remains confident it will get more from ace David Price (4.36).
So, while Ortiz said of his exceedingly rare failure to deliver in the ninth inning, "I let it go," it was impossible for him to deny what a more reliable Rodriguez could mean for the Red Sox during the season's final two months.
"It seems like in the beginning [of the season] he was trying so many different things, you know?" Ortiz said. "Now he's back to where he was last year, mechanically-wise. He looked good to me."