“You almost have the same feeling when Sale pitches that you had when Pedro pitched,” said Jerry Remy during Thursday’s Red Sox broadcast on NESN. “It’s that kind of feeling when you come to the ballpark like you’re going to see something special.”
Dozens of pitchers have come through Boston since Pedro Martinez last donned a Red Sox uniform in 2004. We’ve seen a few stars develop—Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Cy Young winner Rick Porcello all come to mind. But none have matched the level of dominance and flair that Martinez brought to the mound every fifth day—until now.
Filthy, unreal, absurd, ruthless, dominant, majestic—all are apt ways of describing Chris Sale’s first four games with the Boston Red Sox. But here’s the adjective I like best: historic. Sale’s 42 strikeouts are the most by a Red Sox pitcher in his first four outings since Pedro tallied 44 back in 1998. Sale has also notched 12 or more punch-outs in back-to-back starts, becoming the first Boston pitcher to accomplish that since 2001. Care to guess who that was?
The Pedro comparisons aren’t going away, but if you ask me, Sale looks more like vintage Randy Johnson with his lanky 6’6” frame, not to mention that both are left-handed. Sale’s latest masterpiece came Thursday afternoon in Toronto. The 28-year-old melted the Blue Jays over eight shutout frames, finishing the day with 13 strikeouts and only one walk. That lowered his ERA from an already microscopic 1.25 to a breathtaking 0.91.
Sale yielded just four hits, all of them singles. Most impressively, 80 of Sale’s 102 pitches went for strikes. Sale was David Copperfield on the mound, making balls disappear and reappear out of thin air. Jose Bautista, one of the most decorated hitters of the last decade, faced Sale four times on Thursday. He struck out every time. Sale’s strikeout-palooza included 22 swings and misses.
And somehow, after all that, Sale still didn’t even get the win. Instead, the W went to Craig Kimbrel, who blew the save by serving up a game-tying home run to Kendrys Morales on the second pitch of the ninth inning. An afternoon of brilliance erased by one 97 mph meatball, right down the pipe. Thanks a lot, Craig.
The Red Sox still won the game 4-1 in extras, but all anyone could talk about after was manager John Farrell’s now infamous decision to pull Sale after eight innings. Sale’s pitch count was at 102, which is about the limit for most starters. But Sale isn’t like most starters. CSNNE.com's Evan Drellich broke down Farrell’s dilemma as succinctly as possible by tweeting, “Who’s a better pitcher, Chris Sale at 102 pitches or Craig Kimbrel at 0?”
Obviously the move backfired, but it’s hard to blame Farrell for what transpired. Is trusting a shutdown closer to collect three outs against a team that hadn’t scored all day really that big a coaching blunder? Kimbrel is a five-time All-Star who gets paid $13 million a year to protect ninth-inning leads. Thursday he didn’t get the job done. It happens to the best of ‘em.
I understand the psychological element involved, the idea that the Jays would be relieved to face anyone else, even an ace closer like Kimbrel, after being tortured by Sale all afternoon. But I’ve also witnessed what happens when Farrell sticks with Sale too long as he did in his second start of the year against Detroit. I also lived through 2003 when the Red Sox’s season crumbled in part because Grady Little left Pedro in longer than he should have.
Who’s to say Sale wouldn’t have unraveled in similar fashion had he come out for another inning? It’s also worth mentioning that Xander Bogaerts’ slide into second base earlier in the frame led to a lengthy review (he was eventually called out) that may have taken Sale out of his rhythm. Pitchers are creatures of habit after all, and Sale likes to move quickly.
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Lost in all this, is that aside from that one mistake, Kimbrel pitched remarkably well on Thursday. After grooving one to Morales, Kimbrel set down the next six hitters he faced with five of them going down on strikeouts. Thursday ended Kimbrel’s streak of 25 consecutive saves dating back to last season, so obviously this isn’t a frequent occurrence.
It’s odd to be doing this much finger-pointing in a game that the Red Sox won, but clearly Thursday’s fiasco wouldn’t have happened if Boston had scraped together more runs. This has been a recurring theme in Sale’s starts this year. The left-hander ranks 94th out of 106 qualifed starters in run support this season. What a cruel trick to play on Sale after years of being on disappointing White Sox teams that could never score for him. Finally he gets traded to a winner and this is how he’s treated? In fairness to Red Sox hitters, Sale has had the misfortune of lining up against some pretty overpowering pitchers including Marco Estrada and former AL MVP Justin Verlander.
Boston didn’t score its first run until the ninth inning on Thursday. It came on an RBI single that Xander Bogaerts recklessly tried to stretch into a double. Bogaerts paid the price for his greed, injuring himself on a slide at second base. He stayed in, but went for tests on his injured thumb after the game, casting doubt on his status for Friday’s series opener in Baltimore. The go-ahead run was scored by Mitch Moreland, who doubled on a gapper to right field with two outs. The two-bagger was Moreland’s 11th of the year, giving him three more than any other hitter in the major leagues.
After Morales sent the game into extra innings, Mookie Betts dropped a bases-clearing double into left field for his only hit of the afternoon. The three-run double came off Jason Grilli with two outs in the 10th inning. Betts made headlines this week for his streak of 129 consecutive plate appearances without a strikeout. He’s whiffed three times in only seven at-bats since the streak ended.
Chris Sale’s next start will come Wednesday against the Yankees. I'll get the popcorn ready.
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AL Quick Hits: Carlos Correa returned to action Thursday after sitting out three games with a bruised hand. He went 0-for-2 with a walk in Houston’s 2-1 win over the Angels … Carlos Beltran went yard for the first time in 2017 Thursday against the Angels. For Beltran, it was his first home run as an Astro since October 17, 2004. That was 4,569 days ago … Steven Souza finished a single shy of the cycle Thursday in the Rays’ 8-1 win over Detroit. Rookie shortstop Daniel Robertson launched his first big league homer in the same game … Jose Iglesias is likely headed to the 7-day concussion disabled list following a collision in Wednesday’s game against the Rays. Reliever Joe Jimenez is expected to absorb his roster spot … Justin Upton hit off a tee on Thursday but still felt soreness in his bruised forearm. Andrew Romine has been filling in for him at left field … Red Sox manager John Farrell said David Price is still dealing with soreness in his left elbow, though he was able to play long toss before Thursday’s game in Toronto. Price has been hampered by elbow issues since early March … Jason Kipnis has been on the disabled list with an inflamed rotator cuff but is slated to return Friday against the White Sox. The two-time All-Star hit just .200 during a seven-game minor league rehab assignment.
NL Quick Hits: Jhonny Peralta was placed on the disabled list with an upper respiratory illness on Thursday. The Cardinals third baseman has had a miserable season so far, hitting just .125 with nine strikeouts in 25 at-bats … Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria was activated from the disabled list on Thursday. He missed 10 games with a strained oblique … Daniel Murphy sat out Thursday’s game against Atlanta due to right leg tightness. He was available to pinch-hit and should return Friday against the Mets … The Nationals were also without Jayson Werth on Thursday night. Werth left Wednesday’s game with groin spasms but is already feeling better and should be back in a day or two … Shawn Kelley recorded his second save Thursday against Atlanta while Koda Glover pitched the eighth inning for his fourth hold. Manager Dusty Baker said Kelley and Glover would share closer duties but Thursday’s events suggest Kelley is in the driver’s seat … Stephen Strasburg earned the 71st win of his career Thursday against the Braves. That moves him ahead of Livan Hernandez and Jordan Zimmermann for the most in team history. That doesn’t include the 35 years the franchise spent in Montreal before moving to D.C. and rebranding as the Nationals … Matt Kemp returned from the disabled list Thursday against the Nationals. He had missed the previous 10 games with a strained right hamstring. Kemp was hitless in four at-bats as the Braves fell 3-2 to Washington … Maikel Franco snapped an 0-for-22 drought in spectacular fashion by going 2-for-4 with a homer in Thursday night’s win over the Mets. The solo blast was his third of the season … Hector Neris worked a perfect ninth inning for his first save of 2017 Thursday against the Mets. Joaquin Benoit, who was announced as the Phillies’ closer last week, pitched the eighth for his third hold … Yoenis Cespedes left Thursday’s game against the Phillies with a left hamstring injury. More will be known after he goes for an MRI on Friday morning … Mets closer Jeurys Familia was reinstated Thursday after serving a 15-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on domestic violence. He pitched a scoreless ninth inning in a loss to Philadelphia … Tony Cingrani was sent to the disabled list with an oblique injury on Thursday. Cingrani spent part of last year as Cincinnati’s closer before transitioning to a setup role.