The love affair between Chris Sale and Red Sox fans started on Opening Day with a prolonged standing ovation as he was introduced. It continued as he walked to the bullpen Wednesday to do his warm-up prior to his first Sox start, as the fans cheered and were “out of their minds,” as Sale put it, to see him.
It didn’t end there, either.
As he walked off the mound after the top of the seventh inning, the cheers continued. And why not? Sale didn’t disappoint, striking out seven and leaving a scoreless game the Sox won when Sandy Leon hit a walkoff three-run homer in the 12th.
Sale threw his first pitch at 97 miles per hour. Most of the rest were between 92 and 94. He had a fabulous slider and excellent changeup. There wasn’t much Sale couldn’t do in his first Red Sox outing.
“I felt good,” he said. “I felt confident I could throw all of my pitches for strikes, whether I was ahead on the count or behind. The credit goes to Sandy. He called the pitches. I just threw them.”
As for his state of mind, Sale said, “I get nervous before every game, but tonight was different because it was my first time pitching for the Red Sox. Running out of the first base dugout was awesome. It was special. I tried to go through my normal routine and do everything I normally do, but I also wanted to soak it all in.
“Opening Day was something I’ll never forget, and walking off in the seventh inning is something I’ll never forget. Again, I am really appreciative.”
There’s always a certain level of angst any time a pitcher with a lot of hype makes his Red Sox debut. It seems on those occasions the debuts have been decent, but sometimes what comes after leaves a lot to be desired.
Sale’s performance Wednesday night was in line with other strong ones put in by other major acquisitions over the years in their Red Sox debuts. In 1998, Pedro Martinez beat the Athletics, 2-0, in Oakland in his Sox debut, striking out 11 and allowing three hits and no runs over seven innings. In 2006, Josh Beckett beat the Rangers in Texas, 2-1, in his Sox debut, going seven innings and allowing one run with one walk and five strikeouts. In 2007, Daisuke Matsuzaka beat the Royals in Kansas City, 4-1, in his Sox debut, going seven innings and allowing one run and striking out 10. In 2010, John Lackey pitched six three-hit innings with two walks and three strikeouts in a 3-1 loss to the Yankees in his Sox debut. In 2015, Rick Porcello pitched six innings in his Sox debut, allowing three earned runs in a 4-2 loss to the Phillies in Philadelphia. And last year, David Price pitched six innings in his Sox debut, allowing two runs with 10 strikeouts in a 6-2 win over the Indians in Cleveland.
The only question Wednesday night appeared to be whether the Red Sox offense would score enough runs against Pittsburgh starter Jameson Taillon to support Sale, given the fact that Mookie Betts was missing from the starting lineup with flu-like symptoms and Brock Holt was sent home for the same reason. Leon didn’t answer that question until the 12th.
Beckett, Porcello, and Price all struggled in their first seasons in Boston. Of course, Price was 17-9 with a 3.99 ERA, which is hardly a monumental struggle, but it still wasn’t one of his better years. He also had the $31 million-a-year salary that was a bull’s-eye on his back. Any type of struggle was going to be magnified.
Matsuzaka came with plenty of promise. He won 15 games his first season, 18 games in 1999, then went south in a hurry. The Red Sox couldn’t wait to get rid of him because he never lived up to the hype. Beckett struggled in 2006 but then rebounded nicely in 2007 to help the Sox win the World Series. Porcello had the worst season of his career in 2015 in his first season with Boston, and then won the Cy Young Award last year.
Sale has had early-season success in recent times. A year ago in Chicago he won his first nine decisions with a 1.58 ERA, while opponents hit just .163 against him. He entered Wednesday night 14-4 with a 3.14 ERA in 22 career March/April starts. And he’d never lost his first start of any season (5-0, 2.08 ERA).
Sale entered Wednesday night averaging 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings in his career. The only other pitchers to average double digits are Randy Johnson (10.6), Kerry Wood (10.3), and Pedro Martinez (10.0). Sale and Price have had the most complete games in the majors since 2012 (14).
Sale has the highest strikeout/walk ratio (4.78) in the live-ball era (minimum 1,000 innings). And only he and Max Scherzer have struck out 200-plus batters in each of the last four seasons.
That’s how good Sale has been.
He also possesses toughness, similar to Beckett and Lackey and the departed Jon Lester, which makes him able to handle most situations. Sale’s intensity is off the charts. He loves to win. He was never truly in a winning situation with the White Sox, who had records above .500 only twice since Sale broke in with them in 2010.
Sale allowed only three hits. He allowed a single to David Freese in the second on a 3-and-2 pitch, but struck out Francisco Cervelli and Josh Harrison to escape the inning. Adam Frazier reached on an infield single in the third. In the fifth, Harrison singled off the left-field wall but was erased with an inning-ending double play grounder by Josh Bell.
It was powerful, economical, and efficient. The crowd loved him. Sale had it all in his first outing. For one start anyway, there was no Boston angst. But as Beckett, Matsuzaka, Porcello, and Price can attest, Sale isn’t out of the woods just yet.