BALTIMORE — Alex Cora believes in the long haul, preaching that his team not get caught up in the misleading messages of a single moment or game. Yet on Wednesday night, as the Red Sox manager surveyed his team during and after a hard-won, 2-1, 12-inning victory at Camden Yards, he took an opportunity to relish what he saw.
On the field, there was so much: Chris Sale delivered an overwhelming vision of dominance; Mookie Betts blasted a homer to continue his surge; Jackie Bradley Jr. delivered a highlight-reel, game-saving catch; Andrew Benintendi continued to deliver in extra innings; and Heath Hembree recorded his first save. Those combined efforts allowed the Red Sox to even their record at 19-19.
In a vacuum, all would have been satisfying. Yet for Cora, the context extended. Amidst questions about clubhouse unity ahead of the split roster attending and skipping the White House, Cora saw the characteristics of the team he knows: Together, supportive, determined, unified. And he didn’t want to fail to appreciate it.
“This,” Cora said after the victory, “was very gratifying today. There’s been a lot of talk about what’s going on [with Thursday’s White House visit], the clubhouse being divided, race, politics, whatever. Those kids went out there and they played their heart out. We know who we are in the clubhouse. We know a lot of people doubt that. But like last year, we cancel the noise, we show up every day, and we play.
“For everybody that’s talking about us, the situation, crushing us throughout the week, well, they played extra innings, they didn’t give in, and you see them in the clubhouse, they’re celebrating Heath because of the first save, they’re celebrating Jackie, and now, we go. There’s a group that’s going home, and there’s a group going to the White House. And on Friday, we get back — get back to playing baseball.”
They will do so with a sense of renewal, thanks both to their record and a number of elements that showed up in impressive fashion on Wednesday night, starting with Sale.
The lefthander looked the part of a fire-breathing dragon, carrying a no-hitter into the sixth inning and ultimately dominating over eight, in which he allowed one run on three hits, walked none, and struck out 14. He made one mistake — a meatball changeup that Trey Mancini smashed for a run-scoring double — but otherwise overwhelmed the Orioles with a low- to mid-90s fastball (16 swings-and-misses) and wipeout slider (8 more) that led a succession of disconsolate batters on a headshaking march back to the dugout.
“Amazing,” Cora said of his ace. “For everybody that was worried about velocity and all that, well, he went eight and he had a good slider. He located his fastball. In this business, you’ve got to be patient. We’ve been patient. Slowly but surely, [he’s re-established his] mechanics, location, slider, velocity. It was around this time last year [that he took off].”
He is taking off now. In his last four starts, Sale has a 1.73 ERA with 42 strikeouts and six walks in 26 innings. Perhaps the most dramatic testament to his reemergence came in the form of an “immaculate inning,” when Sale struck out Hanser Alberto (92 m.p.h. fastball), Dwight Smith Jr. (slider), and Stevie Wilkerson (95 m.p.h. heater) on nine pitches in the seventh.
“I got two outs and I was like, ‘Keep throwing strikes. Either give up the hit or a foul ball or something,’ ” said Sale. “That’s cool.”
Sale became the fifth Red Sox pitcher to throw an immaculate frame and the fourth to strike out at least 14 with no walks while allowing no more than three hits. He has struck out at least a dozen batters 35 times in his career, tied with Roger Clemens for sixth most in big league history.
Ordinarily, Sale’s dominance would have put the Red Sox in a comfortable position to cruise. Instead, the Red Sox had barely enough to extend the game into extra innings, with a solo homer in the third inning by Betts — who, despite carrying a .391/.500/.625 line over 17 games into Wednesday’s contest, took early batting practice on the field — accounting for the team’s only offense through 11 innings.
Yet that single run permitted the Sox to extend the game thanks to the work of Sale, Matt Barnes (who worked around a leadoff double in the ninth), Brandon Workman (a perfect 10th, giving him a chopped-up no-hitter over his last 10 appearances, during which hitters are 0-for-27 with eight walks and 14 strikeouts), Ryan Brasier (a scoreless 11th), Hembree (struck out the side for the save), and especially Bradley.
With one out in the 11th, Trey Mancini blasted a ball to left center that appeared destined for the Baltimore bullpen. But Bradley perfectly timed his leap against the fence, reached over the wall, and pulled the ball back — giving his team another inning to score.
“Big-time circumstances,” said Bradley. “If I don’t catch it, we go home. I was able to extend the game a little bit longer in order for us to get another point.”
That point came when Benintendi blasted a solo homer to right in the top of the 12th, the seventh go-ahead hit in extra innings of the 24-year-old’s career. Among Red Sox players of the last 30 years, only David Ortiz has more.
With the victory, the Red Sox will split up on Thursday’s off-day — one group back in Boston, another in Washington — before reconvening on Friday against the Mariners, the same team the Red Sox faced when they last owned a .500 record at 1-1. Thirty-eight games into the year, the rematch will come with a renewed sense of possibility.
“I don’t want to say the season starts Friday,” chuckled Cora, “but, the season starts Friday.”