2019 has not been Chris Sale’s year. He finished the first half with an ERA over four—the first such occurrence in his 10-year career—while failing to make the American League All-Star squad after starting the Mid-Summer Classic in each of the previous three seasons.
Between his violent delivery and the mileage that comes from being a major-league workhorse for the better part of a decade, Sale’s decline may have been inevitable. It’s just rotten timing that it had to happen before the ink even dried on his five-year, $145 million contract extension, a calculated risk made by ambitious GM Dave Dombrowski. This isn’t a case of a player cashing in and losing his motivation either—nobody has been more frustrated by this chain of events than Sale, who has been equal parts exasperated and dumbfounded by his recent struggles. “I’m standing before you as frustrated as I’ve ever been,” the left-hander offered after a particularly poor start against Toronto earlier this month, later adding in another layer of self-loathing by calling his season “absolutely embarrassing.”
Sale’s accountability is admirable but without results, his post-game soliloquies are just words. But on Thursday there were no apologies to be had, no excuses, no long-winded explanations of what went wrong—just an afternoon of vintage dominance from one of the game’s best. The seven-time All-Star mowed down the Blue Jays on getaway day, spanning six shutout frames in a 5-0 Red Sox win. Like a master chef adding in spices for extra flavor, Sale peppered his tour de force with a dozen strikeouts while limiting the visitors to two hits, both singles, in a 101-pitch gem. Remarkably, Thursday’s matinee marked Sale’s first regular-season victory at Fenway Park in over a year.
The rebuilding Jays haven’t exactly been world-beaters—only the Orioles and Tigers have worse records—but for most of the year, they’ve been Sale’s kryptonite. Prior to Thursday’s breakthrough, Sale had been 0-2 with a harrowing 7.98 ERA in three starts against Boston’s Canadian archrival. As encouraging as Thursday’s performance was, Sale’s star turn against Toronto brought little clarity to what has been a deeply confusing year for the veteran southpaw. Though he seems to have sworn off consistency, the 30-year-old has, at various intervals this season, resembled the tantalizing talent that once made “Sale Day” required viewing throughout New England. He’s been a tease, instilling hope with brilliant showings against Baltimore (8 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 14 Ks), Colorado (7 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 17 Ks) and Kansas City (9 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 12 Ks) only to pull out the rug with ugly efforts against Seattle (3 IP, 6 H, 7 R) and Los Angeles (4 2/3 IP, 7 H, 5 R).
Sale is still racking up K’s—his strikeout total is the league’s third-highest behind Max Scherzer and Gerrit Cole—and maybe that’s part of the problem. The left-hander’s insistence on chasing swings and misses has led to higher pitch counts, forcing him to expend greater energy while adding further stress to his stick-figure 6’6,” 180-pound frame. Sale finds himself at a familiar crossroads that all aces will eventually encounter. There’s a delicate balance to be struck between trying to miss bats—an effective but draining endeavor—and pitching to contact (a harder ask when your velocity is plummeting). Clearly he hasn’t hit the sweet spot yet. Sale’s standing among the upper-echelon of big-league hurlers is a bit harder to place because as Thursday confirmed, he can still paint a masterpiece with his arm. The difference is, those museum-quality works of artistic genius used to be the norm. Now they’re happening less frequently. Whether that points to a decline, a mechanical problem in need of fixing or just an off year in an otherwise sparkling career remains to be seen. But whatever pitching concoction Sale stewed up Thursday certainly did the trick.
While Sale handled the pitching end, Rafael Devers continued to put the offense on his shoulders, staking the Red Sox to a 4-0 advantage by slugging a three-run homer off Thomas Pannone in the fifth inning. He’s been an absolute wrecking ball this month, surging to a .345 average with seven homers and 23 RBI since the calendar flipped to July. One of the most egregious All-Star snubs in recent memory, Devers got the last laugh Thursday, just as he has all season against the Jays. He’s shown no mercy, annihilating them to the tune of a .441 average with eight jacks and 28 RBI this year, the latter eclipsing David Ortiz’s team record for most RBI in a single season against Toronto. Whether it’s his improved physique—the Dominican Republic native looks noticeably slimmer this year—or something else pulling the strings, the blossoming 22-year-old has made this the Summer of Devers.
The division ship has probably already sailed for Boston with New York running away with the AL East, but that doesn’t mean the Red Sox are going to roll over and play dead. The Sox have gotten serious the past few weeks, trimming some of the fat off their roster by designating struggling infielder Eduardo Nunez for assignment and sending Ryan Brasier an hour south to Pawtucket. They’ve also added to their rotation by acquiring Andrew Cashner while finally assigning a closer, enlisting the services of playoff hero Nathan Eovaldi.
It’s go time for the Red Sox and that sense of urgency has not been lost on Xander Bogaerts, who continued his torrid July by supplying another two hits in Thursday’s victory. The two-time All-Star and recent recipient of a $132 million mega-extension has gone ballistic, hitting an eye-opening .452 with five homers and 15 RBI over the length of his 10-game hitting streak while lifting his season average from an already impressive .297 all the way to its current .315. He’s somehow had an even better month than his infield-mate Devers, batting a robust .412 over 51 July at-bats. There’s work to be done—the A’s still hold a two-game edge over Boston for the American League’s final wild card spot. But if Xander and Devers keep hitting the cover off the ball and Sale improves on his sluggish first half by tapping into whatever magic he summoned Thursday, the reigning World Champs are going to be just fine.
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AL Quick Hits: Nathan Eovaldi traveled with the Red Sox to Baltimore and will likely be activated on Saturday. Eovaldi, who logged a scoreless inning for Pawtucket in his lone rehab outing, has been on the shelf since undergoing elbow surgery in April. … Brendan McKay will make another start Friday against the White Sox. The former Golden Spikes Award winner has impressed since debuting last month, compiling a 1.69 ERA over 16 innings at the major-league level. In addition, the dual-threat left-hander has also started at DH for Tampa Bay. … Matt Chapman got the night off Thursday in Minnesota after injuring his ankle a day earlier. Luckily the All-Star third baseman, who leads the A’s in numerous categories including home runs (22), RBI (59) and doubles (25), expects to suit up Friday in Minnesota. … Tigers skipper Ron Gardenhire implied Spencer Turnbull could be shut down soon as the right-hander is approaching his innings limit. The 26-year-old owns a respectable 3.65 ERA for the season, though his record sits at a disappointing 3-9. … Albert Pujols bowed out of Thursday night’s game with hamstring tightness. Angels manager Brad Ausmus downplayed the injury in his post-game remarks, calling it “more of a cramp” while noting it won’t require an MRI. Pujols’ teammate Mike Trout (calf) served as the DH Thursday in his return from a three-game absence, going 1-for-4 with a double in a loss to Houston. … The Angels plan to use J.C. Ramirez as a multi-inning reliever upon his return. The right-hander has spent the past several weeks in the minors rehabbing from last year’s Tommy John surgery.
NL Quick Hits: Not only did Stephen Strasburg notch his league-leading 12th victory in Thursday’s win over Atlanta, but the Nats ace also had a big night at the dish, collecting three hits including a three-run homer off Touki Toussaint. In doing so, Strasburg became the first pitcher in five years (Madison Bumgarner was the last to do it) to record five RBI in a single game. … Nick Senzel was a spectator Thursday night, owing to a strained hamstring suffered on Wednesday. The rookie’s MRI came back clean, however, and the Reds are confident he’ll avoid the injured list. The former second overall pick has impressed in his debut season, supplying eight homers, 15 doubles and nine steals over 61 appearances. … The Phillies are reportedly exploring a number of trade options including Madison Bumgarner, Mike Minor, Matthew Boyd and Zack Greinke. If none of those avenues pan out, Philadelphia could look to bring in Drew Smyly as a fallback. Smyly became a free agent Thursday after opting out of his minor-league deal with the Brewers. … Max Scherzer threw up to 90 feet on flat ground Thursday. The Nationals haven’t ruled him out for Sunday’s start in Atlanta, though manager Dave Martinez cautioned that Scherzer would have to be “100 percent” to get the green light. The three-time Cy Young winner has been battling a strained back. … In what may have been his final start in a Giants uniform, Madison Bumgarner was electric Thursday night, scattering five hits and a run over nine dominant frames in a no-decision. That game, which San Francisco eventually won in 16 innings, pitted Bumgarner against Mets flamethrower Noah Syndergaard in a rematch of the 2016 NL Wild Card game. … Braves starter Kevin Gausman is due to return Sunday against Washington after missing the past month with plantar fasciitis. The right-hander aced his rehab outing for Triple-A Gwinnett Tuesday night, striking out 10 over seven innings of two-run ball.