Will Chris Sale have his normal velocity in Game 1 of the American League Division Series? And after pitching just 12 innings in the final seven weeks of the season, will he be able to give the Red Sox something approaching an outing of normal length?
Red Sox manager Alex Cora insisted that he’s “100 percent sure” Sale is healthy, and that his diminished velocity after returning from the disabled list (most notably in his final tuneup, when he averaged a career-low 90.1 miles per hour on his four-seam fastball) is the product of a fixable issue in his delivery. But until Sale pitches Friday, he’ll remain an unknown.
There’s a chance Sale returns to his status as a fire-breathing dragon, and that, as he suggested after his final outing of the regular season, he’ll “be there” when the lights flip on for the postseason. But there’s also a chance that he won’t be unleashing mid- to high-90s heat.
Such a development wouldn’t preclude effectiveness, but it would make it harder to achieve. Specifically, if Sale doesn’t have his velocity back, he could struggle with pitch efficiency, much as he did in requiring 92 pitches for 4⅔ innings in his final regular-season outing against the Orioles.
The Red Sox certainly hope for Sale at full strength. Cora hopes to rely on his starters for deep outings that set up the bullpen. But if that doesn’t happen with Sale, the spotlight could shift to a pitcher with a chance to carry considerable significance in the ALDS: Nathan Eovaldi.
Cora said Eovaldi will be available out of the bullpen for Game 1. Should the Red Sox face the Yankees in the ALDS, Eovaldi almost certainly would get the ball to start Game 4; the Sox are still deciding whether he or Eduardo Rodriguez would get a Game 4 start against Oakland.
While his exact role has yet to be determined, Eovaldi is clearly being positioned to assume innings of significance. He represents an intriguing X-factor after a finishing kick to the regular season in which he allowed one earned run in 13 innings (0.69 ERA) while striking out 19, walking just two, and holding opponents to a .152/.204/.196 line in three starts (two of which came against the Yankees).
Given that Eovaldi had a 1.53 ERA with 22 strikeouts and five walks in 29 combined innings against the Yankees and A’s this year, it’s not hard to imagine him being asked to deliver key outs, whether as a starter or reliever. It is a possibility the 28-year-old righty — who has never pitched in a postseason game — relishes.
“It’s very exciting,” said Eovaldi. “You feel the energy and the vibe in the clubhouse now and we’re still [two] days away. Physically, I feel probably the best I have all year.
“Fortunately, the timing is perfect right now. Physically, mentally, and mechanically, everything feels really good. I have a good idea of where I’m at and where I want to be.”
For the Red Sox, there is comfort in such a declaration, with Eovaldi serving as either a valuable insurance option for Game 1 or a weapon in his own right.
Yet regardless of whether Eovaldi plays a critical role, the mere possibility that he might do so serves as a reminder about the stage of the season. As much as stars can shape a postseason, the three-round chase of 11 wins represents a fascinating month-long test of a team’s depth and creativity. Unexpected contributors emerge in unexpected roles.
One need only rewind to last year, when the Astros made on-the-fly decisions to transform regular-season starters Brad Peacock, Lance McCullers, and Charlie Morton into starter/reliever hybrids.
“It’s not that we mapped it out that way,” said Cora, who was the bench coach on that Houston team. “We went to Plan B and C and D and all of a sudden [Morton] is on the mound [as the closer] in Game 7.”
Swingman Mike Montgomery was on the mound to close out the Cubs’ championship in 2016. In 2013, some of the Red Sox’ most important outs of the World Series came courtesy of Felix Doubront, who’d been moved to the bullpen.
If the Red Sox are to make a run deep into October, Eovaldi — or someone like him — likely will have to emerge as an unexpected force, perhaps in an unfamiliar role.