Perhaps this will all seem quaint by the 2028 American League Championship Series, the idea of two starting pitchers expected to take their teams deep into a playoff game before grudgingly giving way to the bullpen.
The diminishing influence of starters is already well underway, the 90-win Tampa Bay Rays proving that teams can be successful by using “openers” to start games and create favorable matchups from the first pitch.
Oakland even tried it in their wild-card playoff game against the Yankees earlier this month. It didn’t work, but other teams are sure to keep at it until it does.
So here in 2018, that makes Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday night at Fenway Park something to savor while we still can as Chris Sale faces Justin Verlander. These are two aces who aren’t concerned about facing a hitter for the third time. They intend to pitch as long as they can.
“Obviously we both have very good bullpens and big arms on either side. But this is more, I guess, the traditional way to play the game, and the way I like to play the game,” Sale said Friday.
That it comes against the Astros is fitting. Sale made his postseason debut at Minute Maid Park against Verlander in the Division Series last season and allowed first-inning home runs by Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve.
When the Sox came back to tie the game, Sale allowed five more runs in what was an 8-2 loss. Houston went on to win the series in four games.
Now Sale gets another chance against the same team and same opposing pitcher.
He’s been ready,” manager Alex Cora said. “Game 1 last year in the Division Series, it wasn’t a good one for him. And instead of taking it as a negative, he learned from it.
“It’s not like he wants to beat the Astros more than the Yankees or the Royals. With Chris, he’ll compete at a high level even throwing bullpens. So he’s in a good place. He’s ready to go. And I’m glad that he’s going to throw Game 1 for us.”
The Astros, like the Red Sox, are starter-driven. Houston has Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel, and Charlie Morton. All started at least 30 games and had 12 or more wins.
In Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, and Nathan Eovaldi, the Sox have a similar group. It could be what decides the series between the teams with the two best records this season.
“I think it’s just better for the game,” Sale said. “It’s kind of one of those things where you have this starter versus this starter against these lineups.”
Sale was 11-4 with a 2.04 ERA and averaging 13.2 strikeouts per nine innings before he was diagnosed with shoulder inflammation in late July. The Sox, comfortably in first place, twice shut him down and in the five regular-season starts that followed never let him get beyond five innings or 92 pitches.
Now Sale will be free to pitch as deep into the game as he can. The inflammation, while still being treated, isn’t a problem.
All the extra rest, careful usage, and tightly controlled pitch counts have led the lefthander here.
Sale pitched twice against the Yankees in the Division Series, the second time in relief for an inning. He allowed two runs over 6⅓ innings and struck out nine with two walks. Both runs scored after he left Game 1 of that series.
“I’ve had faith and trust in the coaching staff, my teammates, my doctors here,” Sale said. “We’re at a point now where we can kind of let it go and just get back to pitching. And I think that process, leading up to that was a big part of that.
“We had to do what we had to do during the season to get here now . . . there’s no holding back.”
Sale’s four-seam fastball hit 96 m.p.h. when he pitched a perfect eighth inning against the Yankees when the Sox clinched the Division Series in New York on Tuesday. He also had the bite on his slider, the ball diving at the back foot of righthanded hitters.
The goal was three outs, but Sale also should be sharper against the Astros instead of the alterative of having six days off.
“He was really good,” Cora said. “I do feel that the experience coming out of the bullpen in Game 4 in the division series helped him out.
“He was good, good fastball, good off-speed pitches. He didn’t get caught up in the moment. Actually, he really enjoyed it. You could tell. And I don’t want to say it was the bullpen, because it’s a lot different, you know? But as far as usage, it was perfect. Not too many pitches, very efficient. And now he’s ready.”