Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale was a question mark heading to the playoffs for good reason.
He wore down last season after pitching 214 ⅓ innings, and that was why he stunk in last year’s Game 1 of the American League Division Series by giving up seven runs on nine hits in five innings in an 8-2 loss to the Houston Astros. The Red Sox made it a point this year to lessen his workload, so he can be effective in the postseason.
But then he missed a month in August with left shoulder inflammation couple of times. In his final start of the regular season, his fastball velocity dropped from 95 to 90.2 mph, and he gave up three runs in just 4 ⅔ innings against the Baltimore Orioles.
The Red Sox know if they are going to win the World Series, they need their stopper to pitch like he has in the first few months of the season. So all eyes were on him on this Friday night at Fenway Park.
Sale did quite fine, thank you.
He allowed two runs on five hits with eight strikeouts in 5 ⅓ innings in the Red Sox 5-4 victory over the Yankees in Game 1 of the ALDS. He left in the sixth inning after giving up singles to Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, and it resulted to couple of runs in that inning.
His performance was the most encouraging part of the Red Sox victory. It wasn’t just beating the Yankees. It was about being great this month, and the Red Sox have to feel good about their postseason chances after what they saw from their southpaw. They can feel secure knowing that he will be ready to go in Game 5 if the best-of-five series goes that far.
The key to the game was the first inning when Sale struck out Andrew McCutchen, Judge and Stanton to get his first three outs of the inning. Yes, he threw 25 pitches in that inning, but he found a way to grind through it by getting much needed strikeouts. It was right there the Yankees knew they were going to be in for a long night against him.
When AL MVP candidate J.D. Martinez hit a three-run home run over the famous Green Monster in the first inning that would give the Red Sox a 3-0 lead, this made Sale’s job easy to attack with a lead.
The Yankees tried to get something going against the AL Cy Young candidate in the fifth inning. Aaron Hicks (Brett Gardner pinch-ran for him) and Didi Gregorius were on base by getting couple of singles. But with two on and two out, the Red Sox southpaw struck out Miguel Andujar to end the inning.
So much for a big inning by the Yankees. So much for trying to get Sale out of the game in that spot.
After giving up hits to Judge and Stanton in the sixth inning, Red Sox manager Alex Cora made the move to take Sale out. It was an interesting move since the Red Sox bullpen does not inspire confidence, and it showed when Ryan Brasier, Brandon Workman and Matt Barnes struggled to throw strikes in this game.
But Cora wanted Sale to leave on a positive note, and he did not want to extend his starter any longer while he continues to get his strength back.
The Fenway audience gave the Red Sox ace a standing ovation for pitching well. They also know now they can feel good about their team’s chances to win it all after what he did in this game.
For Sale, it was a relief. He does not have to answer questions about whether or not he can be reliable this postseason. He does not have to deal with his postseason struggles for one night anyway.
He knows he is healthy enough that he can mix in his pitches such as throwing a slider and a changeup to go along with a fastball. He can still change speeds when he is throwing his pitches. He was able to throw 94 mph. He dictated the rhythm of the game against the Yankees.
He didn’t feel like he had anything to prove despite what happened in his last postseason start. All he wanted to show was that he still has it despite missing time this season.
There are no more doubts about what he can do. The Red Sox can rest easy. The sky-is-falling Red Sox crowd can take it easy for one day.
Ask the Yankees if Sale is back.
All they could do is shake their head after striking out eight times as a nod of approval.