HOUSTON — One word and one word only best summarizes Chris Sale’s first career playoff start:
“It sucked,’’ Sale said after giving up seven runs (and three homers) in five-plus innings of an 8-2 Game 1 loss to the Astros. “A terrible time for it to happen . . . Just made bad mistakes . . . This one’s on me. I take full responsibility for this one . . . Got to be better. No excuses. Bad time to suck.’’
Sale was going to be different from softie teammates David Price and Rick Porcello, who both spit the bit in the playoffs last year. He was going to bring back memories of the badass October days of Pedro Martinez, Crazy Schill, and gunslinging Josh Beckett. He was going to be impervious to playoff pressure. He was going to dominate. He was going to throw bullets until his arm fell off and then come back on three days’ rest and dominate again.
But no. None of that happened. Sale was no different than Porcello in 2016. Or Price in any playoff start of the last 10 years.
In fact, Sale was worse. His Thursday afternoon outing in Game 1 of the ALDS almost made you long for the golden days of Price and Porcello getting punked by the Tribe in 2016.
Sale gave up nine hits and walked one, throwing 100 pitches, 63 for strikes. His career postseason ERA stands at 12.60.
It didn’t help matters that Sale’s manager and medical team were in full Clown Show Overdrive, bollixing the starting lineup by hoping that Eduardo Nunez’s knee had miraculously healed (it had not), then sending Sale back out for the sixth inning when the ace had nothing left. Down, 5-2, John Farrell let Sale go back out for additional punishment at the hands of the relentless ’Stros. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought Manager John (will he get fired if the Sox are swept?) just wanted to see his exhausted lefty get his 300th strikeout.
Oh, and since we’re in piling-on mode, let’s not forget that the “we do it our way and we’ll keep doing it our way” Red Sox ran into another out on the base paths when it was still a one-run game in the second inning. Dustin Pedroia was the culprit. One hundred and sixty-three games into the season, the stubborn Sox are still confusing foolishness for aggressiveness.
There you have it. Game 1 of the 2017 ALDS was the Full Monty of Bad Boston Baseball.
The silver lining, of course, is that this was only one game and the series is still winnable. Drew Pomeranz could stuff the ’Stros Friday and Doug Fister could produce a miracle at Fenway on Sunday. Sale could redeem himself later in the series and Game 1 could prove to be a mere speed bump in the Sox’ march to a championship. But it sure didn’t feel that way Thursday when Jose Altuve (let’s hope this man wins the MVP award) hit three homers and the Astros totally pantsed Sale and Farrell’s feeble nine.
All year long, Sale has been The Man in the Sox rotation. He faced none of the criticism that dogged Price in his first season (I know pitching wins mean nothing, but Price was 17-9 in his fist year while Sale was 17-8). While Price is relentlessly ridiculed, Sale has been unassailable. Fans love Sale. Teammates love him. And there seemed to be an unhealthy obsession with his ability to strike out 10 or more batters in every start. There was rarely any mention of the strikeout inflation of 2017 and little was made of Sale’s late-season slump when he compiled an ERA of 4.09 in his final 11 starts. He appeared to be fizzling, but no bullets were spared by Manager John. On a night when he should have been lifted after the sixth inning, Sale vaulted over the magic 300-strikeout milestone in the eighth inning of a Baltimore blowout Sept. 20.
Swell. But he gave up nine homers in his final five starts. And his September slump carried into October.
The ’Stros struck fast. With one out and nobody aboard, third basesman Alex Bregman launched a rocket booster off the Blue Cross sign in left. Altuve was next and he crushed his first homer to left-center on an 0-2 pitch. Two homers in one inning off Sale? Really?
“Location,’’ explained Sale. “Just made bad pitches to good hitters. You can’t do that, especially early on.’’
After the Sox managed to tie the game in the top of the fourth, Sale gave the lead right back on a two-run double by Marwin Gonzalez. Altuve hit his second homer in the fifth to make it 5-2. Sale joined Porcello (last year) and the immortal Matt Clement (2005) as the only Sox starters to allow three homers in the first game of a playoff series.
Incredibly, Sale trotted back out for the sixth and was finally lifted after a double and a walk.
Did it make any sense to send him back out, given that he’s somewhat cooked and the Sox are toying with the notion of bringing him back on three days’ rest in a potential Game 4?
“Yeah, it’s go time,’’ answered Sale. “No holding back now . . . I’m available whenever they tell me to.’’
The Red Sox slumped badly at the end of 2016. Including playoffs, they lost eight of their last nine games. This year, it’s the same so far. They have lost six of their last eight. Sale was hired to make a difference. He did not. Now they can only hope he gets another chance.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at email@example.com