Still winless, Red Sox ace Chris Sale is inching along
Chris Sale lasted five innings and allowed two runs against the team with the worst offense in the American League on Tuesday afternoon.
He left a 2-2 game in the hands of the bullpen, then watched from the clubhouse as the Detroit Tigers beat the Red Sox, 7-4.
“A step in the right direction,” Sale said.
“I felt like he was better,” was the analysis of manager Alex Cora.
Is that really where we are with Sale, little steps and hopeful comments?
It used to be easy to evaluate the lefthander. Sale would overwhelm the opposition with three well-above-average pitches, go deep in the game, and the Sox would win. When that didn’t happen, it was an anomaly.
Now we’re left looking for clues to determine what we’re seeing. Sale struck out 10 on Tuesday and induced 14 swing-and-misses. Those were his best marks of the season. That’s good.
But the Tigers also fouled off 24 pitches, running up Sale’s pitch count in a hurry. His fastball velocity also dropped from an average of 95.4 miles per hour against the Yankees last week to 92.7. That’s bad.
The bottom line is this: The Sox are 0-5 in the games Sale has started this season and he has given them 23 innings. The season is almost a month old and his progress is still being measured by inches, not victories.
If this is a product of how the Red Sox conducted spring training, there’s nothing to worry about. Sale will build up again to being their ace.
He feels that’s the case.
“The stuff is starting to get there but I need to extend these outings a little bit,” he said. “Not exactly where we want to be, but better.”
Sale scoffed at the idea that he needed to build confidence.
“I know who I am. I know what I can do on a baseball field,” he said. “I’m not worried about where I’m at or what I’m doing. I know what I’m capable of doing.
“For me it’s getting my stuff back, getting my command back and putting it all together. Harnessing that and carrying it through as many starts as I can.”
Still, it was disturbing to see Sale knocked out of the game early by a rebuilding Detroit team that came into the game averaging 3.05 runs.
Sale allowed three hits after being ahead 0 and 2 in the count. Grayson Greiner, who had one home run in 151 previous major league at-bats, drove a poorly located Sale fastball over the Green Monster to tie the score in the fifth inning.
Sale nearly got lifted a few batters later but struck out Niko Goodrum to leave two runners stranded.
That left the game to the untrustworthy portion of the Red Sox bullpen and it went sour quickly. Heath Hembree allowed one run, Colten Brewer three more, and Bobby Poyner another that got him demoted to Triple A Pawtucket afterward.
“Too many foul balls, too many deep counts. Walked a couple of guys. I need to clean some things up around the edges,” Sale said. “We’ll get there.
“It would be nice to be able to go out there and fill up seven or eight innings or finish a game. It seems like every time I’m out there we’re just leaning on [the bullpen] and that’s a tough spot to put them in.”
Cora rightly credited the Tigers with doing a good job of running up Sale’s pitch count. But teams have tried to do that for years with little success. Sale usually combats that by throwing that slider they can’t foul off or blowing a fastball by them.
“Making better quality pitches earlier in the count and putting them away when I have two strikes on them,” he said when asked what the solution was.
Cora’s assessment was an honest one.
“Velocity was OK. We thought the slider was good. The changeup was OK,” he said. “Obviously we’re looking for six or seven [innings]. Hopefully that’s the next step.”
That Sale struck out 10 suggests the pure stuff is there and he will soon find a way to harness it deep into games.
The alternative is that the Sox gave a five-year, $145 million extension to a pitcher just as he started his decline.
How far off are the Sox away from seeing their ace again?
“Four days?” Cora said, the question mark apparent in the inflection of his voice.
Sale is scheduled to start Sunday against Tampa Bay. Maybe the pitcher the Sox need will finally make his appearance.