ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Red Sox took advantage of gaps in their schedule to give Chris Sale two extra days off before he faced the Tampa Bays on Tuesday night.
As he waited, Sale threw an extra bullpen session to fix the mistakes he made against Cleveland in his last start. The lefthander allowed seven runs over five innings in that game.
“I was flat-out embarrassed the last time I was on a baseball field,” Sale said. “That didn’t really sit right with too many people, especially myself. I wanted to come back and be good for this one.”
Not that he needed more incentive, but Sale also had his wife and two sons in the stands at Tropicana Field along with his parents, in-laws, high school coach and college coach.
The Rays walked into a whirlwind. Sale dominated over eight innings as the Sox extended their win streak to seven games with a 2-0 victory.
Sale struck out 13, walked one and allowed two hits, both singles. Craig Kimbrel then finished off the Rays for his 28th save, striking out three more.
The 64-49 Sox are 15 games over .500 for the first time this season and lead the Yankees by four games in the American League East. The Yankees are 3-5 since being declared big winners at the trade deadline. The Sox are 7-0.
The Sox start a three-game series in New York on Friday and have Sale lined up to start on Sunday night.
For Sale, who has yet to appear in the postseason, this is what he wanted.
“It’s everything. That’s what we’re here for. We’re here to play important games and win important games and we have been,” he said. “We’re going to keep trying to ride this wave as long as we can.”
Sale has struck out 10 or more batters 15 times in 23 starts, the most for an American League pitcher since 2000 when Pedro Martinez also did it 15 times.
The Red Sox record is 19, set by Martinez in 1999. Sale leads the majors with 229 strikeouts.
The extra rest was a factor against the Rays. Sale has started 24 games with six or more days of rest in his career. He has a 1.88 earned run average with 189 strikeouts over 167⅔ innings in those games.
Sale was locked in from the start, retiring the first 10 batters in order before Trevor Plouffe reached on an error by rookie third baseman Rafael Devers.
“He had his best fastball right out the gate and was able to maintain it,” manager John Farrell said. “He was dominant. A lot of strikes, a lot of swing and miss. I thought his slider was one of the more sharp ones he’s had in quite some time. He was in command of this one.”
The Rays didn’t get their first hit until Wilson Ramos singled with one out in the fifth inning. Sale quickly handled the next two batters.
After Peter Bourjos singled in the sixth inning, Sale came back to strike out Plouffe and Evan Longoria.
Tampa Bay did not advance a runner into scoring position until the seventh inning.
Logan Morrison drew a leadoff walk then was thrown out at second by first baseman Mitch Moreland when Steven Souza Jr. bunted.
“That’s probably the turning point of the game. The biggest play of the game,” Sale said.
After a wild pitch, Sale struck out Ramos and Angel Hechavarria on seven pitches. In all, Sale struck out six of the last nine, his fastball still at 97 into the eighth inning.
“There isn’t a ton to talk about. We couldn’t quite figure him out,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.
The temptation would be to use Sale every five days and get 34 or 35 starts from him. But he has a history of decreased performance in the second half and has yet to pitch in the postseason.
Scheduling extra days off for Sale in August and September could make a big difference in October.
“There’s been a lot of pitches thrown, a lot of strikeouts. They take their toll physically. Any time we can give him an additional day, we’ll look to do it,” Farrell said.
The Sox had 12 hits off four Tampa Bay pitchers but were 1 of 14 with runners in scoring position. Eduardo Nunez was 3 for 5 with two doubles. Xander Bogaerts had three hits and scored a run. Jackie Bradley Jr. had two hits and one RBI.
Tampa Bay rookie Austin Pruitt had faced the Red Sox twice in relief in April and allowed five runs on 11 hits over 3 1/3 innings. As a starter, he was much more effective, giving up one run over six innings.
Dustin Pedroia, who was activated off the disabled list before the game, walked and scored on a groundout by Devers in the fourth inning.
The Sox made it easier for Kimbrel, scoring a run off Ryne Stanek in the ninth on singles by Bogaerts, Moreland and Bradley.
Bradley somewhat atoned for losing track of the number of outs in the seventh inning and being doubled off first base to end the inning.
“I can’t make up for that,” Bradley said. “That was a mental mistake. That’s 100-percent unacceptable. I have to be better than that and I will be better than that. No excuses.”
Watching Sale was much more enjoyable.
“He’s been everything that we needed and more,” Bradley said. “He’s been very special all year.”