Chris Sale is 5-0 with a 2.57 earned run average through seven starts since making his return from Tommy John surgery. His success continued Wednesday night with five solid innings as the Red Sox beat the Mets, 12-5.
As the Sox take determined strides toward a playoff berth, the surface numbers suggest Sale is again the pitcher they invested $145 million in before the 2019 season.
It’s not an illusion. But the lefty has been dealing from a stacked deck.
The Sox have scored 63 runs with Sale on the mound.
Six of his starts have been at Fenway Park.
Five of the seven opponents have had losing records. That includes two games against the historically awful Orioles and two others against last-place teams in their respective divisions, the Rangers and Twins. The dispirited Mets had lost six of seven coming into Wednesday’s game and trailed, 9-1, after three innings.
The Mets had some good at-bats against him, but Sale allowed only two runs on six hits and struck out eight. He had a 6-1 lead to work with after two innings.
Sale has pitched on at least one extra day of rest five times.
He has yet to pitch more than six innings or throw more than 95 pitches.
Sale’s fastball velocity this season (93.4 miles per hour) has not come back to where it was in 2018 (95.2). That could be a function of the long layoff and improvement will come over time. But for now that’s where it is.
Sale maxed out at 97.6 on Wednesday, so it’s there when he needs it. But it’s more a flash than a flow.
“The fastball, you could see the velo was getting up,” manager Alex Cora said. “Today was a good outing, much better than the last one and I feel stuff-wise he’s getting closer.”
In two starts against the Tampa Bay Rays, a potential opponent in the Division Series, Sale allowed seven runs (three earned) on 16 hits and three walks over 9⅔ innings.
Sale could pitch twice more in the regular season, on Monday at Baltimore then Oct. 3 in Game 162 against the Nationals in Washington. Two more soft landings. If the final game is meaningless, the Sox would then have a choice of using Sale or Nate Eovaldi in the Wild Card Game on Oct. 5.
The Sox have played it smart. Sale was out for two years before he returned to the majors and bringing him along carefully was the right move.
Sale also missed a start earlier this month after contracting COVID-19 for the second time this year. Ideally, he might have been stretched out to six-plus innings by now but that hasn’t happened.
Sale feels the velocity is still building but isn’t crucial to his success.
“I don’t really rely on it as much as I used to and I don’t really put as much into it, I guess,” he said. “If it’s there, it’s there. If not, I’ll find a way. Obviously, it’s something I’d progressively like to uptick.”
With nine games remaining — three each against the Yankees, Orioles and Nationals — the Sox have a two-game lead on the Yankees in the wild-card race and a 2½-game lead on the Blue Jays.
Nothing is secure, but it’s fair to wonder what Sale could give the Sox in a playoff game.
Once the bubble-wrap comes off, will Sale be able work into the seventh inning and throw 100 pitches against a team like the Rays on the road?
We probably won’t know until he faces that challenge.
“There’s no doubt,” Sale said. “I don’t have any reserve or question in my ability to pitch into later innings or higher pitch counts. I’ve trained for this. This is what I prepare myself for on a daily, monthly, yearly basis.”
Put some bunting up with an October chill in the air and emotions get charged.
“Once those lights flick on it’s a different breed, it’s a different ball game. I can find adrenalin in some unique places. I don’t think I’ll have a problem with that,” he said.
Sale isn’t sweating much. He’s even happy with the yellow and baby blue “City Connect” uniforms the Sox have worn during this undefeated homestand.
They’ve become a bit of a talisman for the team and will be back on Friday for the Yankees. The uniforms were inspired by the color of the finish line at the Boston Marathon.
“I love them, I do,” said Sale, who in 2016 sliced up the alternate jerseys the White Sox wanted the players to wear and was suspended for five games.
“I know that may be a surprise to some people. I think it’s great and what it represents means even more to us . . . I think you’re going to see them quite a bit more.”