Chris Sale will take the mound in Game 1 of the World Series shortly after 8 p.m. on Tuesday night. What happens then is unsettlingly uncertain for the Red Sox.
Sale has not pitched since Oct. 13, when he worked a shaky four innings against the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the ALCS. He allowed two runs on only one hit but walked four and hit a batter.
Sale was hospitalized a few hours later with a stomach ailment that caused him to rapidly lose weight. He was lined up to start Game 6, but the Sox were able to advance in five games.
Now Sale gets the Los Angeles Dodgers and their ace, Clayton Kershaw, to open what is a compelling World Series between two of the game’s cornerstone franchises.
Among active pitchers, the 30-year-old Kershaw has the lowest earned run average at 2.39. The 29-year-old Sale is second at 2.89. It’s a dream matchup.
But will Sale be the All-Star pitcher who overwhelmed hitters for the first four months of the season or the off-brand version who has been limited to 27⅓ innings in the 12 weeks since because of a sore shoulder and then a sour stomach?
The difference could be what decides whether the Red Sox win their fourth championship of this century or end what has so far been the season of a lifetime unfulfilled.
The Sox were able to beat the Astros largely without Sale, winning the final four games of the series. But the Dodgers, in the World Series for the second consecutive season, have been stubbornly competitive.
They won a playoff game against the Colorado Rockies to claim the National League West title, then swiftly eliminated the Atlanta Braves before winning the NLCS in Game 7 on the road against the Milwaukee Brewers on Saturday.
Their season has been a grind, having trailed in their division by as many as nine games before coming back to take it.
“For us to kind of be in the game, that’s a good thing for us,” manager Dave Roberts said. “So I like the underdog role.”
Sale, who will be facing the Dodgers for the first time in his career, can validate the strength of the Red Sox in Game 1 or force manager Alex Cora to scramble his bullpen early again.
The Dodgers have struck out 117 times over 99⅔ innings in the postseason. If Sale has command of his slider, particularly against all the righthanded hitters Roberts plans to use, he could work five or six innings.
But if all he has is a low-90s fastball, which was the case for much of his last start, the Dodgers could steal a game at Fenway Park.
“As many as we need,” Sale shot back confidently when asked how many innings he was capable of. “There’s no holding back now. My job’s been the same since the first day I got here: You hand me the ball when you want me to throw it, and take it out of my hand when you want me to stop.”
Sale’s condition remains elusive to pin down. He made light of the situation over the weekend, saying he had an infection from a belly-button ring, then evaded questions about his health again on Monday.
Pitching coach Dana LeVangie acknowledged it was questionable whether Sale would have started Game 6 in the ALCS.
“Fortunately, we never made it that far,” LeVangie said. “I’ll just say there was a chance he could have pitched that game.”
That Sale instead had further time to recover from his illness should be beneficial. He threw a bullpen session on Sunday and has been able to play catch on consecutive days.
“He was run down,” LeVangie said. “These few days were important. Just playing catch three or four days in a row allowed him to get into his arm slot and his delivery a little bit. All those are benefits.
“The more of a routine he has, the better.”
That much Sale was willing to concede.
“Having these extra few days has been nice to be able to get back on that routine, get a little more normalcy back into it,” he said.
“Getting my strength back . . . getting back to my routine. Leaned on Dana a little bit and got back to doing some things that made me successful in the past. And try to carry that forward into tomorrow.”
Since the day he was traded to the Red Sox, now almost two years ago, Sale has consistently said winning the World Series is his only goal. It was why he wanted the downtrodden White Sox to deal him, to get that chance.
“It’s really all he talks about,” teammate Matt Barnes said.
So factor that in, how much Sale’s drive will push him through the limitations he is dealing with.
“With Chris, I think we’ve all come to realize that he’s pretty genuine,” LeVangie said. “He’s done a lot in his career and still has more to do. But pitching in the World Series and winning the World Series is No. 1 on his list.
“I think that has gotten him to another level. There have been challenges, but we got him here. Having Chris in this game is huge for us.”