Electricity — literal and metaphorical — shot through Fenway Park, a surge inspired by a walkoff homer from Adam Duvall that capped an improbable Red Sox comeback from a six-run deficit to produce a 9-8 win.
Long after the game’s conclusion, members of the Red Sox remained charged by the unlikely events that led to a win and the shared sense of accomplishment by the many, many contributors to that unlikely outcome. Yet for one player on the team, the final score could not erase a sense of failure.
Chris Sale took the mound at Fenway on Saturday for the first time in almost 18 months. The lefthander had been giddy in the weeks leading up to the outing, elated by his first healthy, normal spring training in at least five years. That outlook was shared by Sale’s team.
“It feels damn good to have Chris Sale back on the mound,” manager Alex Cora said before the game.
But the Orioles proved unsentimental about the pitcher’s homecoming. Baltimore erupted for seven runs over three innings against the 34-year-old, one of the worst outings of Sale’s career.
Sale heaped praise on both the offense and the bullpen that prevented the game from getting out of hand. But the lefthander offered a withering self-assessment.
“Hell, I was out there throwing batting practice,” said Sale. “I left them completely out to dry tonight. I was as embarrassed as I’ve ever been on a baseball field.”
While Sale came out firing in the first at 95 miles per hour to strike out leadoff hitter Ramón Urías, the Orioles — ever adept at anagrams — quickly turned that “Wow” into an “Oww.” Sale allowed a one-out single to budding superstar Adley Rutschman before a hanging slider got belted by Ryan Mountcastle for a two-run homer to left-center.
While Sale bounced back with a strikeout, he grooved a first-pitch fastball to Austin Hays, who smashed a solo homer to center, leaving the Sox in a first-inning, 3-0 hole.
Sale worked around a pair of baserunners in a scoreless second, but again lacked both luck and precision in the third. A pair of one-out infield singles put the lefthander in a bad spot, and a misfired full-count fastball to lefty Gunnar Henderson put him in a worse one. Sale got another infield dribbler — this one, a run-scoring fielder’s choice by Jorge Mateo — and could have escaped with a 4-1 deficit.
But with two outs and a 1-2 count, Sale turned not to his slider — usually the source of sorrow for lefties — but instead to his fastball against the lefthanded Cedric Mullins. The pitch was center-cut, and Mullins sent a rocket into the center-field bleachers for a three-run homer that put Baltimore ahead, 7-1, marking just the fourth time in Sale’s career he’d given up a homer to a lefty with two strikes.
There’s no hiding from the line: seven runs on seven hits and two walks in three innings, along with six strikeouts. The contest marked the 12th time in Sale’s career that he allowed at least seven runs, and the fourth time he’d done so in three innings or fewer — the previous one coming in his Opening Day egg in 2019. It was the 10th time in Sale’s career he allowed at least three homers.
He wasn’t particularly interested in the particulars. He wasn’t sure if he’d been tipping pitches, hadn’t assessed whether his undoing had been stuff or location, didn’t place too much on the idea that he’d been exposed without a reliable slider.
“Sometimes you just suck,” said Sale. “It’s unfortunate. I waited a while to pitch here at Fenway. To go out there and do that was embarrassing.”
Still, there were small hints of promise. Sale showed premium velocity, topping out at 97 m.p.h., and getting swings-and-misses when he could locate his fastball at the top of the zone. He also featured his best changeup in years, getting five swings-and-misses on the pitch, and his sinker mostly produced weak contact.
His stuff was fine. His ability to execute was not.
“His stuff is electric right now,” said catcher Reese McGuire. “For the first outing, it wasn’t exactly how we drew up, but a lot of really good things came from that and I’m really excited to keep going forward.”
Will he do that? While his command and control were off the mark on Saturday, those elements have been hallmarks of his career.
Still, there are no guarantees with a 34-year-old who is coming back after missing as much time as Sale has. Sale has joked that after three years of barely pitching, his arm is just 31 years old even if he is 34. But he is not picking up where he left off prior to his 2020 Tommy John surgery or, for that matter, when he was last one of the game’s most dominant pitchers in 2018.
And so, the Red Sox remain in the initial stages of a journey into the great pitching unknown — both with Sale and their staff as a whole. The team’s offense looks potentially explosive. The ability to defy forecasts of mediocrity relies on the pitching staff to surpass expectations.
On that front, the team’s start has been rough. In two games, the Sox have allowed 18 runs to the Orioles — with back-to-back season-opening yields of eight-plus runs for the first time since 2011.
That beginning is hardly predictive of what will happen, but the Sox clearly need more than what they’ve gotten — and they’ll need Sale to prove that Saturday represented an initial speed bump on the road back to excellence. Sale did not shy from that notion, even as he finally permitted himself one source of contentment.
“Heading back to the drawing board,” said Sale. “We all played good except for one guy. Obviously I’ve got a lot of work to do but, as a whole, taking this game was big-time.”