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Tomase: Phenom Garrett Whitlock is finally coming back to earth

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Rookie pitchers don't hit walls so much as watch their mistakes sail over them.

Case in point: Garrett Whitlock. The Rule 5 right-hander, stolen from the Yankees after missing more than a year to Tommy John surgery, finished April like the second coming of Mariano Rivera circa 1996, when he was John Wetteland's dominant multi-inning setup man.

Whitlock not only didn't allow a run, he barely surrendered any hits. His 18-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio told you all you needed to know. Blessed with an upper-90s fastball and devastating changeup, Whitlock mowed down opposing hitters with such ease, we started to argue about whether he'd be more useful as a starter or locking down the eighth inning.

We were getting way ahead of ourselves, because breakout performers like Whitlock don't remain secrets for long, and the rest of baseball already appears to be catching up.

On Sunday, he allowed his first run when Rangers second baseman Isiah Kiner-Falefa took him deep leading off the seventh in a game the Red Sox would lose. Whitlock didn't factor in that decision, but there was no hiding in the 10th inning Monday when he lost a long at-bat to Jonathan Schoop on a bloop single, and then served up a first-pitch meatball that Tigers third baseman Jeimer Candelario launched halfway to Chelsea for a three-run homer in Detroit's 6-5 victory.

If baseball is about lessons, Whitlock is learning one that comes for every pitcher, whether his last name is Koufax or Clemens or Kershaw or Whitlock: this bleep ain't easy.


"I think the fastball to Candelario, he was ready for it, he jumped on it," said manager Alex Cora. "It's part of this. It's part of being a big leaguer. You're going to have good day and bad days, and he should be OK."

He's human after all

Whitlock's WHIP in first six outings (13.1 IP)
Whitlock's WHIP in last two outings (2 IP)

Whitlock dominated so effortlessly for a month that it became easy to lose sight of exactly what he's accomplishing. Until striking out five in his eye-opening debut vs. the Orioles on April 4, he hadn't thrown a pitch in a game that counted since July of 2019, when the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs tagged him for eight hits and nine runs -- including a homer by future teammate, Bobby Dalbec -- in five innings.

He left that game with a sore elbow and by the end of the month would go under the knife. Then the pandemic wiped out 2020, leaving him to throw on Instagram, which helped the Red Sox find him in the Rule 5 draft.

They would've made every effort to carry him on the roster rather than offer him back to the Yankees had he pitched just marginally well in spring training, but he ripped through Fort Myers like a tornado, striking out one to two batters an inning and securing his place on the roster through performance alone.

Returning to the mound after Tommy John is an experience that probably only trails a big-league debut on the stress-meter, and Whitlock is doing both. It should be no surprise that he has entered turbulent waters.

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"It's baseball," Whitlock said. "The best thing about it is you always get tomorrow, and I'm just thankful to be here so each time AC gives me the ball, I'm going to go out and give it the best I can and try and help the team win."

With the bridge to closer Matt Barnes already feeling perilously unsteady thanks to the struggles of veteran eighth-inning man Adam Ottavino, inconsistent left-hander Darwinzon Hernandez, and unproven righty Hirokazu Sawamura, the Red Sox can hardly afford for Whitlock to regress, too.

But then again, they probably shouldn't be counting on him so much to begin with. Wednesday's appearance was his first on as little as two day's rest, and it showed.

As much as we want to believe he's a finished product, we should accept the reality that he has many lessons left to learn -- and some of them are going to leave the yard.