PHOENIX — The quality of his changeup was one of the primary reasons the Red Sox have remained committed to developing Garrett Whitlock as a starting pitcher.
When he has command of that pitch, Whitlock can navigate any lineup because hitters can’t sit on his sinking fastball.
The evidence was there Saturday night as Whitlock came off the injured list and worked five strong innings in a 2-1 victory against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Whitlock (2-2), Kutter Crawford, Chris Martin, and Kenley Jansen held the Diamondbacks to three hits, one after the first inning. They retired 25 of the final 26 hitters.
The Sox are 4-4 on a West Coast road trip that ends Sunday afternoon with Tanner Houck facing Merrill Kelly.
Whitlock missed a month because of ulnar neuritis in his elbow, an issue that cleared up in a few weeks. The Sox then had Whitlock focus on his changeup during two rehab starts with Triple A Worcester.
“I was getting behind the ball instead of on top of it,” he explained. “I had to get the ball going down again. I feel so much more comfortable with it now.”
By changing his grip and throwing the ball a bit slower, it dives toward the plate. Whitlock had up to 39 inches in fade, a vast improvement from his first three starts, when it averaged 30 inches.
It showed more characteristics of the changeup he used so successfully in 2021 and early in 2022.
“If they’re going to square that up and it’s at the bottom of the zone, they really have to sell out to hit it,” Whitlock said.
Whitlock threw nearly as many changeups (35) as two-seam fastballs (39) and mixed in 18 sliders.
“You saw the difference, it was swing-and-miss stuff,” manager Alex Cora said.
The Arizona hitters were off-balance all night as Whitlock allowed one run on three hits and struck out four without a walk.
After Whitlock went five innings, Crawford set down seven in a row but left the game under unusual circumstances.
He was hit in the right ankle by a ball off the bat of Gabriel Moreno. The ball deflected to the first base line and Crawford made a diving play to throw Moreno out.
He tried to continue but left the game after throwing a few warm-up pitches.
“I’m fine,” Crawford said. “That was adrenalin making that play. But it was probably smart to take me off the mound.”
Martin finished the inning. Jansen had a perfect ninth for his 11th save.
Diamondbacks righthander Zach Davies also came off the IL to make the start. He was out nearly six weeks with a strained oblique.
Davies had runners on the corners with two outs in the top of the first inning when the Sox tried a double steal. Arizona sniffed it out and Alex Verdugo was easily thrown out at the plate.
The Diamondbacks used conventional means to score in the bottom of the inning when Ketel Marte turned on a slider on the inner corner and drove it down the line in right for his seventh home run.
Davies allowed two runs in the fourth inning as the Sox took the lead.
Singles by Masataka Yoshida, Triston Casas, and Kiké Hernández tied the game.
With Davies at 75 pitches, Arizona manager Torey Lovullo called in lefthander Kyle Nelson. Pinch hitter Pablo Reyes walked to load the bases.
“Huge at-bat,” Cora said.
McGuire swung through a slider, then pulled the bat back and pushed a bunt to the right side. Nelson had no play as Casas scored.
The call, Cora claimed, did not come from the dugout.
“Baseball players making baseball plays,” the manager said.
McGuire’s father, Scott, was his Little League coach and taught his charges to bunt.
“The first baseman was back so I tried to go on that first-base side,” McGuire said.
Third base coach Carlos Febles was on it and whispered to Casas to be ready.
“I feel very confident in doing that in those situations,” McGuire said.
The Sox had not bunted with the bases loaded since 2014 when Jonathan Herrera poked home a run against the White Sox to score Grady Sizemore.