HOUSTON — The ALCS starts on Friday night. But Alex Cora threw the first curveball on Thursday afternoon and it caught everybody looking.
“Chris is starting Game 1. Nate is starting Game 2,” he said.
That would be Chris Sale, who has pitched twice in the last 16 days and given up seven earned runs over 3⅓ innings in those games.
With ace Nate Eovaldi rested and ready, the Sox are going with the starter who is their biggest question mark.
“I’ve been absolutely horrible. Probably my two worst starts of my career back-to-back leading up to this,” Sale said.
He’s not exaggerating. Until a few days ago, when he started looking better during side sessions, it was reasonable to think Sale should be left off the roster for this round or used only in relief.
Instead he’s starting Game 1.
“Everybody has to be part of this. We feel comfortable with Chris with the rest that he got,” Cora said.
That’s just it, everybody doesn’t have to have a role. The postseason is a time to push contracts, egos, and lineage aside and use the best players available. It doesn’t matter who Sale once was. It matters who he is now.
The Sox are taking a big risk.
But it might be genius. I kind of like it.
The Sox haven’t played since Monday. If Sale looks shaky in the first inning, Cora has a full complement of relievers to choose from. Three starters — Tanner Houck, Nick Pivetta, and Eduardo Rodriguez — will be available.
“Obviously, we are going to be aggressive,” Cora said.
The upside is that this is Chris Sale they’re taking a chance on. He’s a seven-time All-Star and one of the nastiest pitchers of his generation.
He’s also embarrassed by how he’s pitched the last three weeks.
You’ve probably watched some of Sale’s postgame press conferences over the years. His personality is not to cover up when he’s backed into a corner. It’s to come out fighting.
Sale has taken baby steps since returning from Tommy John surgery in August. Only once in nine regular-season starts did he reach six innings and 90 pitches. The Sox were careful to give him extra days and line him up to face weak teams as often as possible.
It worked for a while before Sale stumbled. Now Cora is demonstrating his trust in Sale, both the pitcher and the person.
“I don’t take that lightly,” Sale said. “I know what I had to do in-between. I knew I had a job to do, and I knew I had work to get in.
“Following my last start in Tampa, I got off the mound every single day because I knew I had to get something going if we were going to be successful, and I know that I’m going to be a part of that.”
Sale abandoned his changeup in his last two starts, relying only on his fastball and slider. He’ll need a third pitch against an Astros lineup that scored 31 runs in four games against the White Sox to advance.
Did he find his changeup since he last took the mound?
“My slider has been good enough I would say up to this point. The two things I really needed to focus on was fastball command and consistency with my changeup,” he said.
“Throwing three out of 10 good is not cutting it here, and that was something that I really tried to focus on and sharpen over the last few days.”
This is not a gimmick to get Houston to remake its lineup for a lefty then spring Houck or Pivetta on them.
“No, we’re not doing the opener thing,” Cora said.
It’s not blind faith, either. The Sox have been breaking down Sale’s mechanics and believe they’ve corrected a flaw that affected his balance and direction toward the plate.
They were encouraged enough by a recent bullpen session to bring Sale back into the rotation. Of course that’s a lot easier knowing Eovaldi starts Game 2.
So Sale gets another chance, one he’s hungry for.
“You can’t run a marathon without running a marathon. You can’t just wake up one day and say, you know what, I’m just going to run 26 miles and then do it and think you’re going to be successful at that,” he said.
“You have to practice that, and you have to just day in and day out just relentlessly, tirelessly work on that. Over the last week I’ve had enough time to do that, and we’ll see what we get tomorrow, but I like where we’re at.”