Chris Sale appears to be back to dominant form after leading the Boston Red Sox to a win in Game 1 of the American League Division Series.
Chris Sale is back! The ace of the Boston Red Sox returned to the mound nearly a month ago but the tall lefty wearing No. 41 only showed flashes of being a dominant pitcher down the stretch. Fans can breath a sigh of relief following Game 1 of the ALDS in which Sale finally looked like himself again.
Sale missed a significant chunk of the second half while dealing with left shoulder inflammation. At first it seemed only precautionary but red flags were raised when his bothersome shoulder sent Sale back to the disabled list for a second time after he made only one start in August.
Boston treated their ace with kid gloves when he returned, limiting him to a total of only 12 innings over his final four regular season starts. The outings were meant as a tuneup to get him ready for the postseason, gradually building up his strength so that he could be unleashed when the games mattered most in October.
The plan seemed logical for a Red Sox team that ran away with the division title and could afford to ease Sale back into the mix but there were still concerns based on what we saw over those last four appearances. The most glaring issue was that his velocity was down, hovering in the low 90’s. Plenty of pitchers get by with that mild cheese but it was a bit jarring to see from one who routinely hit 99 mph on the radar gun this season.
He was fine through his first two outings but Sale didn’t look quite as sharp as his workload increased. He surrendered five runs in eight innings over his final two starts, including three runs to the lowly Baltimore Orioles. If Sale couldn’t breeze through a feeble O’s lineup then how would he fare against the loaded New York Yankees?
Sale put those concerns to rest with a strong performance in Game 1.
All eyes were on the radar gun to open the game and our nerves were able to settle down a bit as Sale hit 95 mph with his first pitch. He never quite reached that upper-90’s heat we saw earlier this year but Sale hit as high as 96 mph and was still able to throw 95 in his final inning of work. His velocity may not be all the way back to peak form yet this was far more encouraging than what we saw in September. While low 90’s could be a problem, Sale can work just fine in the 95-96 range.
Sale used his four-seam fastball about equally as often as his slider while mixing in the occasional change up. He was sharp out of the gate, catching Andrew McCutchen and Aaron Judge looking at called third strikes on sliders that darted inside toward the hitter. He walked Aaron Hicks, barely missing with a changeup low and inside but got Giancarlo Stanton to chase a changeup away to end the inning.
Now that’s the Sale we remember! It was clear from the opening frame that he was back to his dominant form.
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Sale ran into a jam in the sixth inning, allowing base hits to Judge and Stanton with a ground out sandwiched in between. Normally you would expect manager Alex Cora to trust his ace to work his way out of trouble but perhaps he was concerned about pushing Sale too much. He had reached 93 pitches, one more than his previous outing and the most he had thrown since July.
Ryan Brasier took over and quickly allowed both inherited runs to score. He managed to escape the inning without further damage but trusting the bullpen to handle the final 3 2/3 innings was akin to walking a tightrope. We were on the edge of our seats, almost expecting these relievers to slip up.
The final line on Sale was a solid 5 1/3 innings in which he allowed two runs on five hits and a pair of walks while striking out eight. His outing may have looked better if he had been allowed to clean up his own mess in the sixth.
Maybe next time. Sale has now thrown at least 92 pitches in consecutive starts. You have to believe he’s capable of hitting triple digits next time. If the Red Sox find themselves in a do-or-die Game 5 then they absolutely need to squeeze all they can out of him. Cora simply can’t turn the game over to this untrustworthy bullpen again this early.
The bullpen managed to hang on by the skin of their teeth, ensuring Sale would be credited with a well-earned win. Critics can no longer harp on the narrative that nobody in the current Red Sox rotation has won a playoff game as a starter. Sale has a win on his resume and based on what we saw last night, there will be more to come.