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Alex Speier

Chris Sale’s impact on Red Sox is hard to overstate

Chris Sale was mostly dominant for 8 1/3 innings Tuesday night, but was unhappy with how he finished.AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Shortly after a mostly dominant 8 1/3 innings effort against the Royals, Chris Sale didn’t mask his dismay. The Red Sox lefthander understood the big picture – his team had won to claim first place in the AL East – but still, he hadn’t accomplished something that had seemed so attainable: His first complete game victory with the Red Sox.

Sale – who’d retired 19 straight Royals from the third through ninth innings – saw his bid for that landmark fall short when he permitted a one-out walk, a two-run homer, and a single. With Sale at 110 pitches, manager John Farrell made the move for Fernando Abad, much to the chagrin of Sale.

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“It sucks, man. I wanted to get that one. I don’t like telling the manager I can go out there and get it for him and not get it done. Would have loved to give the bullpen a full day off,” said Sale. “I’ll never settle. When you start settling, you get complacent, when you get complacent, you suck. That’s not my style.”

That self-skewering over the inability to notch the final two outs is revealing about Sale’s personality.

It’s hard to overstate Sale’s impact to this point with the Red Sox. He’s 9-3 with a 2.85 ERA and a major league-leading 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings. The Sox are 11-4 (.733) when he takes the mound, compared to 29-27 (.518) when anyone else starts.

Of course, it can be misleading to evaluate starters based on won/loss records given the role played by run support and luck in team outcomes. What is not misleading is dominance of pitches and workload. On those counts, Sale has been little short of a marvel.

Start with the pitches.

“He was on tonight. I think he’s on every night, but he’s a tough at-bat when he’s throwing all his pitches, especially when he’s rearing back in the ninth inning and throwing 95,” said Royals slugger Mike Moustakas.

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Moustakas homered in his second plate appearance against Sale, but then got overwhelmed in his subsequent plate appearances, most notably his next time at the plate, when Sale threw a two-strike fastball near his chin that left the slugger in the dirt. Sale followed that pitch with a vicious slider that broke off the plate away, at which Moustakas waved helplessly.

“When you’re throwing anywhere from 90-98 m.p.h., you can command that and throw the slider off of it, it’s pretty good,” said Moustakas.

That is what permitted Sale to work deep – again. The outing was Sale’s 12th this year of at least seven innings, the most in the majors. He’s now thrown 107 1/3 innings, the most by a Red Sox through 71 team games since Pedro Martinez had 111 2/3 innings through his first 15 starts in 1999. Prior to Sale, no Red Sox starter had as many as 100 innings through 71 team games since 2006.

For context: A year ago, David Price ended up leading the AL in innings. Through 71 games, he’d thrown 99 frames. Sale is averaging an additional half-inning beyond the standard set by the pitcher who assumed the largest workload in the league a year ago.

Sale has transformed what the Red Sox can do with a rotation in which other members have offered inconsistent innings. He represents a sort of reset button for the pitching staff, explaining why Farrell has slotted him in immediately after the team’s rotating group of fifth starters (currently Hector Velazquez) and in front of Drew Pomeranz

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“We’ve juggled our rotation with that in mind knowing if we’ve got a guy that we’re going to plug prior to him with the potential of a short start, we know we’ve got him on the next day where we can be possibly a bit more aggressive the day before he pitches. And that’s held true to form,” said Farrell. “He’s been seven-plus innings almost each and every one of his starts. He’s invaluable [in] the way he’s pitched, the number of innings he’s pitched and the quality of the innings that he has contributed.”

He can only continue to do so if he avoids burnout. Given that he’s thrown more innings and pitches (1,629) than anyone else in the majors this year, it seemed fair to wonder whether the Sox might want to give Sale a reprieve over the final innings with the game comfortably in hand.

Farrell acknowledged the need to manage Sale’s workload, noting that the pitcher has been more dominant in the first half (2.75 before the All-Star break) than the second (3.31 after) throughout his career. With Sale showing little evidence of stress on the mound, however, and with the Sox having a day off Thursday that will give Sale five days rest in his next start, Farrell was comfortable with leaving him in the game.

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“We’ll pick our spots,” Farrell said of backing off of Sale’s workload. “We know what the history has been in the second half and we’re cognizant of that. So when we can give the extra day, we always do it.”

With that extra day looming, the Sox were comfortable entrusting the ninth to Sale. While that set the stage for Sale to leave the outing with a hint of disappointment, based on the precedent of his first 15 outings with the Red Sox, it seems likely that he’ll have other opportunities to finish what he starts.


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexspeier.