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The return of Nathan Eovaldi

Can Eovaldi be the Third Heat?

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Oakland Athletics Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

It was only one start, and only six innings, but the return of Nathan Eovaldi this week had to make Rays fans feel great.

Eovaldi tossed six no-hit innings against the A’s on Wednesday, striking out four and walking just one A’s hitter before being removed — a decision he begrudgingly accepted, given the health concerns he has had throughout his career, and the fact that it was his first game back.

This start was a long time coming for Eovaldi, as he signed with Tampa Bay after the 2016 season, but he missed the entirety of 2017. The Rays took a chance on him in free agency, signing him despite knowing he would miss one of the two years they were giving him (2018 technically came with a team option, giving them even more flexibility).

If Eovaldi is able to return and pitch as he did in Wednesday’s debut, the contract the Rays signed him to is going to look ingenious.

To make this article even sunnier, Rays fans should also be excited by not just the results, but the process as well.

Eovaldi averaged a smokin’ 98.4 mph on his four-seamer Wednesday, peaking at 100.2 mph, per Brooks Baseball. If we go by Statcast, his average velocity was a touch lower (96.9), but it trails only Mike Foltynewicz, Noah Syndergaard, and Luis Severino among starting pitchers this season. Again, this was his first start of the season, after avoiding a Tommy John scare during spring training and having bodies removed from his right elbow that put him on the shelf until Wednesday.

Eovaldi’s return also couldn’t have come at a better time for Tampa Bay, as the Rays are in the midst of their busiest stretch of the season, and have been seeing pitchers drop like flies so far this season. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and said necessity played no small part in the creation of The Opener. While the early results have been positive on The Opener experiment, the Rays would still prefer not to have to use the experiment three times every trip through the rotation. With Chris Archer and Blake Snell locked in as the no. 1 and no. 2 guys right now (and maybe not in that order…), it would be massive if Eovaldi could provide that third heat that Jacob Faria was in line to bring before his recent oblique injury.

Eovaldi certainly brought that heat Wednesday.

It’s always difficult to do in-depth analysis on a one-game sample. However, it’s also silly to write off the process entirely, especially when the one game is as significant as Eovaldi’s first start in over 18 months.

Looking at Nate’s pitch mix, there are a few interesting nuggets.

While Eovaldi stayed in line with both his fastball usage (just under 50 percent) and splitter usage (right around 20 percent) — in comparison with 2015 and 2016, in particular — he went to a cutter far more often than in prior seasons.

Eovaldi threw 13 cutters (18.57 percent), after throwing only 220 (1.78 percent) for the entirety of his career prior to Wednesday. As our own Ian Malinowski pointed out in his game recap, the cutter didn’t get any whiffs, but it did a great job of inducing weak contact all game.

Throughout his career, Eovaldi has always been one whose numbers didn’t quite match up with his stuff. By going six no-hit innings on just 70 pitches in his Rays debut, there is hope that maybe he can turn that corner. We’re obviously dealing with just one game, but it was about as encouraging a one game as possible.

As his catcher told the Tampa Bay Times after the game,

“That was incredible,” catcher Jesus Sucre said. “The splitter was amazing. The cutter. … That was amazing. I feel bad because he had a pitch count. If he didn’t have the pitch count I have that feeling for sure he was going to throw at least a no-hitter. At least. … Their lineup, they didn’t have a chance against him today.”

It wasn’t just his pitch mix that was impressive, Eovaldi worked the majority of the plate Wednesday, living on the third-base side of the plate for most of the day, banging righties in on the hands and working lefties away.

He tended to go low in the zone with two strikes, and of his seven whiffs on the day, four came below the zone entirely, three of them on splitters.

It’s early in the Eovaldi Experience, undoubtedly. We’re isolating one start and just 70 pitches to go on, but from what he showed Wednesday, there’s a lot of potential in the “Eovaldi as the third heat” option. His next start will be on the road against the Nationals on Tuesday, a stiff test that should help to tell us even more about what to expect from Eovaldi moving forward.