Chris Sale’s Red Sox debut came on a cold April night at Fenway Park as the pitcher’s duel with Jameson Taillon lasted deep into the Boston night.
The lanky lefty recorded seven strikeouts over seven innings. Sale gave up three hits and a walk to keep the Pirates scoreless as the ball danced in and out of the strike zone in vintage Chris Sale form, throwing 104 pitches – 69 of those for strikes. The pitch selection of Sale was on display for Red Sox nation from the first pitch, his four seam fastball with heavy sinking action, the circle change-up that elicits high percentage of pop outs, his sinking fastball that falls off the table, and his signature slider that often sends batters walking back to the dugout shaking their head.
Sale’s strikeout rate has dropped from north of 11 K/9 innings to just over 9 K/9 in the last year. This trend leads some to conclude that Sale could be leaning toward a more reserved approach, inducing more contact outs than focusing on a purely strikeout strategy. Sale tends to fall off over the second half of a season historically in quality start totals, logging a career high in 2016 with 226 and 2/3 innings.
The 28-year-old will have a more difficult challenge in Fenway with 310 feet to the green monster in left fied, as opposed to the 330-feet cushion to left on the south side of Chicago. Of the 17 times balls were hit into play on Wednesday night, six were ground outs, eight were fly outs, and three were hits. If Sale wants to find sustained success in the band box that is Fenway Park, pitches must be kept low, and contact outs must be kept on the ground. Baseball fans know that frigid temperatures tend to kill the long ball, and Chris Sale most likely benefitted from the chilly Fenway atmosphere against the feared Pirates lineup.
Chris Sale’s numbers will be stellar, the question will be can he continue his success when his arm begins to tire in the second half. His new team has high hopes, and at least for Wednesday night, Sale delivered the goods.
Jameson Taillon, the second overall pick in the 2010 MLB draft, taken immediately after Sale, kept the pace. The Pirates pitcher matched for seven innings, finishing with six strikeouts, five hits and three walks. Mitch Moreland of the Red Sox nearly ended the scoreless streak as two early at bats launched what appeared to be home runs, but both fell unceremoniously into outfielder gloves on the warning track.
The night continued through the ninth inning with Craig Kimbrel getting past an errant throw by third baseman Pablo Sandevol that put a man on first with no outs. Starling Marte then bunted a pop up which was caught by Sandevol to redeem himself. McCutchen and Palonco both then grounded out to end the threat. Felipe Rivero matched Kimbrel’s ninthfor the Pirates with Bogaerts and Ramirez popping out before getting Moreland to strike out trying to be a hero on a high fastball.
Four relief pitchers later, Antonio Bastardo was pitching for Pittsburgh in the bottom of the 12th inning. The breath could be seen wafting from players covered necks and faces as the temperature fell even lower. Chris Young flied out to center field on a 2-1 count, but for the next three hitters, Bastardo could not find the strike zone. Jackie Bradley Jr was walked on 5 pitches to put a Boston runner on with 1 out. Pablo Sandovol came to the plate and put himself in a 2-2 count as he stuck his bat way outside to foul off the fifth pitch of the at-bat.
Bastardo looked in for what would have been the sixth pitch to Sandoval, but then caught Bradley leaning at first with a brilliant pick-off move. Jackie Bradley knew he was had, and sprinted toward second base. The throw from Phil Gosselin took a bad bounce in front of the Pittsburgh shortstop and leapt away from the bag as Bradley slid safe into second base. What would have been the second out turned into two on with one out. The next three pitches could not get by Sandovol as he fouled off the strikes and stood his ground to work a walk from the obviously rattled pitcher.
It was then that Sandy Leon stepped into the batter’s box. On the first delivery he swung through for the first strike. It would be a mistake he would not make again. The Pirates' catcher set up on the outside of the plate, and Antonio Bastardo delivered a backdoor cut fastball that drifted back over the outer half of the strike zone. Sandy turned on it, and sent the ball into the stands 435 feet into the left field bleachers at the top of the Green Monster. The Red Sox had finally broken through the cold Boston night, and gotten one out.
The winning pitcher in the scorecards was Joe Kelly who had come in and pitched the top of the 12th inning for the Red Sox, getting two pop outs and a ground out on nine pitches. But the reason Boston won the game was the man who kept Pirates hitters from setting foot on second base for the first seven innings, Chris Sale. Sale is the difference maker who Boston feels can put them over the top and back into the World Series for the first time in 10 years. The man with a career 1.06 WHIP and 1244 career strikeouts is the inning eating leverage Beantown has been looking for to top off their elite rotation. Red Sox will be feared with a rotation that includes reigning AL Cy Young Rick Porcello, David Price, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Steven Wright, not to mention the closer with ice in his veins; Craig Kimbrel.
It is often said that pitching is the currency of baseball, and the rest of the American League will face near impossible odds with this murderer’s row of pitching talent. Chris Sale was landed in a blockbuster trade from the Chicago White Sox for prospect infielder Yoan Moncada, right-hander Michael Kopech, Outfielder Luiz Alexander Basabe, and right-hander Victor Diaz. Boston has something the White Sox were never able to offer Sale: two other ace starters and an elite offensive lineup that lead the major leagues in runs scored in 2016.
The Red Sox faithful have reason to hope for another American League crown and trip to the World Series behind this level of pitching which not only keeps runs off the scoreboard; but through effective workouts and group training, actually raises other pitchers level of play. Much like backup quarterbacks learning from legendary starters in the NFL, big league pitchers who throw at an elite level bring competitiveness out in those around them in the rotation. This combined with sharing insights and tendencies will make the entirety of the pitching rotation and bullpen better overall.
Older pitchers like Greg Maddux and Curt Shilling were utilized in this way to be mentors to the younger guns on the pitching staff to elevate the level of pitching on the team as a whole, even though they were long past their prime. The mixture of Sale, Price, and Porcello should bring perspective and instruction to younger pitchers who have not reached elite levels but have shown promise.
With injuries to David Price and Drew Pomeranz to start the season, the burden weighs heavy on Sale to prove he is the ace that can keep the Red Sox in front until Price can return to this elite Red Sox rotation. After his performance Wednesday night against the Pirates, Boston can sleep easy and dream of another World Series title following the dramatic display of poise and precision that is the Chris Sale experience.