DETROIT — Monday’s Chris Sale vs. Justin Verlander pitching matchup lived up to its billing.
The chances of this one being a stinker were remote at best. But for the fifth time in five head-to-head meetings with Verlander, Sale was unable to get the win. He left the game trailing, 2-1, after he allowed a go-ahead single to Nick Castellanos with two outs in the eighth.
Even in a loss, Sale was pretty impressive. It reminded me of those rare times when Roger Clemens or Pedro Martinez pitched so well but lost because of a lack of run support.
If you watched this one live, you didn’t come away feeling shortchanged. This was elite pitching.
Sale, sporting a 97-mile-per-hour fastball that he varied to 93-94 and a killer slider that Tiger batters couldn’t follow, struck out 10, his 36th career game with double-digit strikeouts.
“Just needed to bear down a little better,” he said. “I just couldn’t corral it at the end.”
Verlander was so tough. He threw his fastball at around 94, but he could get more if needed. He also had a terrific curveball that kept Boston hitters jumpy.
In four previous matchups, Verlander sported a 1.80 ERA and Sale 2.89.
Sale couldn’t quite duplicate his Sox debut last week when he tossed seven scoreless innings against the Pirates. He surrendered Ian Kinsler’s tying solo homer in the sixth, and the only other bad pitch he made was to Andrew Romine on a ground-rule double to left field in the third.
Sale entered the day with a 7-7 record and 3.11 ERA in 19 career starts against Detroit. Tigers DH Victor Martinez always has given Sale trouble — a .435 career average (20 for 46) and .761 career slugging against the big lefthander — but Sale struck him out twice Monday before Martinez singled in the seventh.
Another Sale nemesis, Miguel Cabrera, went 0 for 3 against Sale after hitting him at a .304 clip entering the game (not to mention a .429 OBP and .587 slugging percentage in 46 at-bats).
Verlander took the mound with a solid track record against the Red Sox — a 5-6 record and 2.82 ERA in 16 career starts, including Game 3 of the 2013 ALCS, which he lost, 1-0. Verlander won both of his starts against Boston last season, holding the Sox to two runs over 12 innings.
Verlander always has been Dustin Pedroia’s worst nightmare. Pedroia went into the game just 2 for 25 against Verlander in his career — the .080 average Pedroia’s worst against any pitcher he’s faced at least 18 times. Pedroia went 1 for 3 against Verlander on Monday, with a harmless single in the third.
So as you can see, this was a pitching-dominated game. Verlander, who exited after seven innings and 112 pitches, did not allow an earned run. He gave up just three hits, including a pair of doubles by Mitch Moreland, walked two, and struck out four.
If the Red Sox had one goal, it was to drive up Verlander’s pitch count so they could get to the Tiger bullpen, which took an 8.47 ERA into the game (16 earned runs in 17 innings). Setup man Bruce Rondon had pitched so poorly, he was optioned to Triple A Toledo before Monday’s game.
And if the Tigers had their wish, they would have made Sale throw more pitches as well. When Sale took the mound for the eighth he had thrown only 88 pitches.
Should Sale have taken the hill for the eighth? There should be no second-guess there.
“That was his game. That was his opportunity to shut the inning off,” said manager John Farrell.
Sale secured the first two outs of the eighth, getting Jose Iglesias to fly to right and striking out JaCoby Jones with a 96-m.p.h. heater. Romine then doubled down the third base line on a hot shot that Brock Holt couldn’t handle.
After Kinsler — who had homered off Sale in the sixth — drew a five-pitch walk, you could have argued for a pitching change. Heath Hembree was warming up. Farrell’s choice was to have Sale pitch to Castellanos, and Castellanos singled through the shortstop hole.
Farrell defended his decision, saying Castellanos hits righties better and Sale had struck out Castellanos twice.
When asked whether he was pitching around Kinsler — as Farrell said he was — Sale said, “I don’t try to work around anybody. I was trying to get outs no matter who it is. I wasn’t able to do that at the end.”
That was pretty much the ballgame.
For once, the Tiger bullpen held a lead.
Sale deserved better.
And sometime soon, Sale, who has allowed two earned runs in 14⅔ innings this season, will be rewarded with a win.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@nickcafardo.