For five innings, Chris Sale time-traveled. He mixed explosive fastballs and stomach-churning sliders, commanding the Fenway stage as few others can.
Though he allowed an opposite-field solo homer to Yordan Alvarez to open the second inning, Sale otherwise dominated the Astros. When he pumped a 99-miles-per-hour fastball past Kyle Tucker to close out the fourth inning — the hardest pitch he’d thrown since 2018 – Sale shouted and Fenway erupted. The surge continued as Sale breezed through an eight-pitch fifth with the Sox still trailing just 1-0.
Catcher Christian Vázquez said it was the best version of Sale he’d since his March 2020 Tommy John surgery — a reflection of a pitcher on a mission.
“I had to leave everything out there. I told myself coming into this game I had a job to do,” said Sale. “I left my [guts] out there on that mound, that’s for damn sure.”
For more than 100 postseasons, such determination would have made the logic of having Sale return to the mound for the sixth inning obvious. But this isn’t 1912, or even 2012, for either postseason baseball or Sale, as the Red Sox were reminded in a crushing 9-1 loss to the Astros in Game 5 of the ALCS.
Baseball is in an era where even five-inning playoff starts are rare. Meanwhile, Sale’s durability simply is not yet what it was prior to Tommy John surgery.
The Sox had permitted Sale to pitch into the sixth inning three times this year. None went well. He’d allowed three runs, recording just four outs. Of the 12 batters he’d faced this year in the sixth inning, six had reached and none had struck out.
There’s a very good chance that as he gets further out from his surgery, Sale will reclaim status as a six- or seven-inning pitcher. But that’s just not who he’s been in 2021.
Sale stood atop a mountain through five innings Wednesday, but he was approaching a well-established if invisible cliff. It came as at least a mild surprise when Sox manager Alex Cora opted against “Snell-ing” his starter, and instead had Sale return to the mound to face Astros leadoff hitter José Altuve to lead off the sixth – the beginning of a third trip through the order.
“Sometimes we get caught up too much on third time through the order,” said Cora. “He was throwing the ball great. The stuff was really good. He was throwing 97 with a good slider.”
Cora wanted Sale for the first four batters of the sixth, with two righties (Altuve and Alex Bregman) alternating with two lefties (Michael Brantley and Alvarez).
Fine and justifiable. But no one was warming in the bullpen behind Sale, who walked Altuve on five pitches while his velocity diminished and his command suddenly faltered.
“I’ve known this since I was 12 years old,” said Sale. “Leadoff walks are going to kill you.”
Ryan Brasier started warming as Sale faced Brantley. The Sox starter got a grounder to third, but misfortune followed, as Altuve’s aggressiveness on the bases (he was running on the pitch and never slowed as he arrived at second, heading to third) left Sox first baseman Kyle Schwarber rushing.
The result? Schwarber dropped the ball, putting runners on the corners with no outs.
And still, Sale stayed in the game. Bregman tapped a comebacker on which Altuve couldn’t score. One out.
That moment, with Alvarez due up, seemed ideal for Cora to ask Sale to exit to what would have been a deafening ovation. Alvarez had been the only Astros hitter to take good swings against Sale, with a homer and a Wall single.
“Nobody else could hit him,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker. “But Alvarez had him.”
Yet Cora opted to keep squeezing the tube of toothpaste. He gave no thought to a pitching change or intentional walk.
“He’s Chris Sale,” Cora said by way of explanation, noting the difficulty of most lefties trying to figure out the Cubist illusion of limbs presented by Sale’s delivery. “He has made a living getting lefties out.”
Though Alvarez had squared up fastballs on the outer half twice, Vázquez called for a first-pitch fastball. He wanted it up. But the 95-m.p.h. heater, if not dead center in the strike zone, was at least in the outer bull’s eye ring. Alvarez once again drilled it, sending a liner down the left-field line to score two runs and put the Red Sox behind, 3-0.
“If I can go back, we can go with a better mix there,” lamented Vázquez.
Finally, Cora came out Sale, but the ovation was appreciative and respectful rather than ear-splitting after Sale concluded his 5 innings. He was charged with four runs (two earned) on three hits and two walks, striking out seven.
“I was good for five and then I sucked for one,” Sale fumed.
Cora has made a number of remarkable postseason decisions with the Sox. Players and coaches alike credit his uncanny ability to blend statistical and observational information to produce good decisions, believing neither his 17-6 playoff record entering Wednesday nor the Sox’ 5-0 record under him following playoff losses was a fluke.
Yet he is not infallible. And on Wednesday, at a time when his team’s sudden offensive struggles (three runs in Games 4 and 5 combined) permitted little room for failure, it wasn’t hard to first-guess Cora’s decision to stick with Sale.
Of course, part of the reason for Cora’s commitment to his starter became evident once Brasier entered the game. After the righthander struck out Carlos Correa, he allowed three straight two-out hits, allowing Houston to take a 6-0 lead and blow open the game.
The Sox bullpen, a constantly shape-shifting creature over the last seven weeks, has been unsettled for some time, making it easy for a manager to daydream about the pre-Tommy John rather than 2021 version of Sale. But reality did not match the wish, and the Red Sox, now down 3-2 in the best-of-seven series, stand one loss from the end of their season – with Sale pining to pitch again.
“I’ll pitch tomorrow if I have to,” said Sale. “I’ve got nothing else going on for the next six months . . . Everyone is available.”