The Red Sox have played 171 games over nearly seven months without their highest-paid player making much of an impression.
That needs to end Wednesday. It’s your turn, Chris Sale.
The baseball season is a collection of snapshots that turn into a motion picture of memories. Sale didn’t join the cast until mid-August after completing a long rehab from Tommy John surgery and has made a series of cameos since, five innings here and there.
Most of his starts came against bad teams, the Red Sox giving their former ace a smooth path and plenty of extra rest as he built up innings.
Now Sale will start Game 5 of the ALCS against the Astros on Wednesday afternoon with his team in dire need of a lift after a disastrous 9-2 loss on Tuesday night.
“This is crunch time. This isn’t, ‘Let’s work back from Tommy John and try to find some stuff.’ We need it now,” Sale said. “I’ve got to do my job. I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do for this team.”
The Sox allowed seven runs in the ninth inning Tuesday, all coming after Nate Eovaldi appeared to have struck out Jason Castro looking at a curveball for the third out. But umpire Laz Diaz called it a ball and Castro singled to give Houston a 3-2 lead. He was the first of seven consecutive batters to reach.
Now, less than a day later, the Sox will send Sale to the mound with the series tied 2-2. Lose again and the series goes back to Houston with the Astros needing one victory to advance.
Sale needs a moment to call his own this season. Here it is, waiting to be claimed.
“He’ll be fine,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said.
Truthfully, it’s a coin flip. Sale started Game 2 of the Division Series at Tampa Bay and allowed five runs in the first inning. He didn’t come back out for the second.
Six days later, Sale started Game 1 against the Astros and was pulled with two outs in the third inning having thrown 61 pitches and allowing one run on five hits.
The Sox painted his outing as progress, as did Sale. Imagine a pitcher like Sale, a seven-time All-Star, saying 2⅔ innings was progress? But that’s where he is this season.
“The way he threw the ball at the end of that outing in Houston, it was good,” Cora said. “The way he worked in between starts, it was good. He will be ready.”
Recovery from Tommy John can be a winding road. Typically a pitcher isn’t back to normal until his second season post-surgery.
But somewhere in that rail-thin body is the same fire-breathing dragon who roared out of the bullpen in Game 5 of the 2018 World Series and struck out three Dodgers to clinch a championship. That game represents Sale’s career postseason highlight. He otherwise has an ugly 7.16 ERA and 1.59 WHIP over eight games.
That can be erased in Game 5. Sale has hit 97 miles per-hour with his fastball this season and commanded his slider. But his changeup remains unharnessed. Sale threw only four in Game 1. If he’s a two-pitch pitcher again Wednesday, the veteran Houston hitters will be salivating. If he can occasionally throw a changeup for the strike, the odds start to tilt in his favor.
He’s been working on it.
“Just my delivery. Getting comfortable with it, being able to repeat it a lot,” Sale said. “I think that’s where a lot of my inconsistencies have come, not being able to repeat that.
“A lot of dry throws, a lot of heavy bullpen sessions, stuff like that. The more repetition I can get, the better off I’m going to be.”
If Sale can get through five innings with a lead, the Sox could leave Fenway with reasonable hopes of returning for the World Series. If the bullpen is up in the second inning, especially after six pitchers were used Tuesday, the Sox are in trouble.
“Chris is capable of holding his own any day of the week, so he is going to go out, do his job as he always does,” said Nick Pivetta, who allowed one over five innings and 65 pitches Tuesday. “He is a competitor on the mound.”
That is undeniably true. Sale will compete with whatever he has. The question is whether that will be enough.
“We’re all going to bounce back. It’s who we are,” Sale said. “We’re tied now, and we got one more at home. We’ve got to take this last one, hop on the plane to Houston, and take care of business down there.”