The success of the Red Sox’ season always hinged on Chris Sale.
He went into spring training healthy for the first time in years. His Tommy John surgery and broken bones were seemingly behind him.
If the Red Sox were to make a postseason run, the wiry lefthander would have to remain healthy, and perform — at least on some level — like the Sale of old.
He struggled to find it in his first handful of starts, but turned a corner at the end of April. Brayan Bello began to reach new heights. James Paxton soared, proving himself healthy, too. The three-headed monster brought excitement. Optimism. Looking ahead toward the possibility of a postseason. Who would want to see that trio in a seven-game series? Better yet, a five-game series?
Then, suddenly, June came and Sale was gone again. A shoulder injury this time, costing him over two months of a season that was predicated on his good health.
The dour feelings returned.
“If you take a kid’s favorite toy away, he’s going to throw a fit for a little bit,” Sale said.
Yet optimism still lingers in August.
The Sox hoped Sale, who was reinstated from the 60-day injured list Friday, could give them four innings in the opener of a weekend set against the Detroit Tigers Friday night at Fenway Park.
With his favorite toy back in his hand, Sale delivered what the Red Sox asked of him. He turned in 4 ⅔ innings, yielding two runs in a 5-2 victory over the Tigers.
“Obviously after a long layoff [not being sharp] can come into question,” Sale said afterward. “So being able to kind of command the strike zone was satisfying for sure.”
Sale was perfect through two outs in the fifth, fanning seven in what was then a 4-0 Red Sox lead. Fourteen Tiger hitters came to the plate against the Sox lefthander, and 14 wound up getting retired by Sale, making him the first Sox starter this season to open a contest by retiring at least 12 in a row.
Yet he left Red Sox fans longing for more when manager Alex Cora came to collect him after allowing a solo homer to Kerry Carpenter and hitting Javier Baez with an errant pitch, his 58th of the game. He exited to a standing ovation, one that, on the surface, wasn’t warranted. But the context of what he’s gone through made it so.
That Sale decided to return early, building himself up as a starter in the big leagues instead of continuing through his progression at Triple A Worcester, was a sign of a pitcher who realized he was needed in order to make a playoff push.
“On my end, with how the game is going now, we have starters going one inning or two innings,” Sale said. “I said, ‘Well, if we’re going to do that, I can do that. I’m not too proud or [have an] ego too big to not go out there and do that and build up here.”
Offensively, The Red Sox put together quality at-bats against a formidable opponent in lefthanded starter Tarik Skubal, who yielded just one run in 5⅓ innings and had six strikeouts in his previous outing against the Rays.
Leadoff man Rob Refsnyder reached base in the first inning on a throwing error by Baez, the Tigers shortstop, and would ultimately score on Masataka Yoshida’s fielder’s choice.
The Sox were held scoreless in the next two frames until Triston Casas delivered a decisive blow in the fourth inning, belting his 19th homer of the season on a three-run shot off Skubal to give the Red Sox a 4-0 lead.
“I was looking for a fastball,” said Casas, who got a slider instead. “I know that’s the pitch that he likes to lean on the most. I mean, it’s a good one, 96-99 miles per hour. I think if you ask him he’ll want that [slider] back. He just left it right in the middle of the plate. If he puts it in a good spot, I would have probably roll over into a double play.”
The Red Sox (61-55) haven’t quite rolled over yet. The club has crept up once again in its wild-card chase, just three games behind the Blue Jays (65-53) for the third wild-card spot with Sale back in the starting rotation.
“I think anytime you’re playing for something, it’s obviously much more enjoyable and more intense,” said Sale. “Plus, playing here at Fenway just always brings something a little bit more.”