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Alex Speier

Chris Sale set to take center stage in AL East race

The Red Sox are 6-3 in the division in the games that Chris Sale has started.
The Red Sox are 6-3 in the division in the games that Chris Sale has started. (John Tlumacki/Globe staff)

Why complicate things? Evidently, the Red Sox are taking a straightforward approach to their pursuit of an AL East title. They plan on using their most powerful weapon as often as possible in pursuit of a division crown. And in 2017, there’s little question that Chris Sale qualifies as the Red Sox’ foremost separator from their primary rivals.

Tuesday marks the start of a run in which the Sox will dare the rest of the division to show that they can overcome the most dominant pitcher in the league. After his outing against the Rays on Tuesday, Sale’s schedule has been mapped out to have him face the Yankees three times over the next three weeks. The Sox have the ability to slate Sale to make each of his next 10 starts this season against divisional rivals, all of them coming on four or five days of rest.

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It’s hard to fault the Sox for a desire to lean on their ace. They’re 6-3 in the division in the games that Sale has started, and 15-19 when anyone else takes the mound against the Rays, Yankees, Orioles, and Blue Jays.

Among those who have made at least four starts this year against AL East teams, Sale has the lowest ERA (2.06), the lowest opponents’ batting average (.172), OBP (.221), and slugging percentage (.279), the highest strikeout rate (41.2 percent of all hitters), and the best WHIP (0.79). He’s doing all of this while averaging the most innings per start (7 1/3) of any pitcher against AL East foes.

Sale has been the single most significant mound figure in AL East competition this year, and there’s not a close second. (Luis Severino of the Yankees ranks a distant second with a 4-1 record, 2.68 ERA, a .221/.272/.334 opponents’ line, 1.07 WHIP, and 27.2 percent strikeout rate.) As such, the Red Sox seem prepared to leverage the lefthander to the greatest extent possible as they look to maintain their position atop the division.

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In some ways, this run in which the Red Sox’ remaining schedule approximates a divisional round-robin could represent a prelude to the postseason. Just as Sale is being positioned as a difference-maker down the stretch, the Sox likewise could try to do the same in a short series.

As such, Tuesday’s start against the Rays marks a beginning of sorts. Sale hasn’t pitched in late-season games with this kind of meaning since 2012. (Amazingly, he did not make a single start from 2013-16 for a team that had a record over .500 after July.) Now, he has an opportunity to demonstrate just how capable he might be of carrying the weight of a pennant race on his shoulders.


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