It was a routine play.
Chris Sale hopped off the mound on a little tapper off the end of the bat by Cody Bellinger. He gathered it in between the mound and the third-base line. It looked as if it was another routine play, the third out of the first inning. Sale shuffled his feet, took his time to gather.
By the time the ball got to Christian Vazquez at first base, Bellinger motioned his arm as if he was safe. He was, indeed, putting runners at first and second. The next batter was A.J. Pollock, who singled in Chris Taylor from second.
This was a window into what Sale’s night would be. What seemed like an easy out led to a Red Sox deficit they’d never erase and an 11-2 loss.
Sale has been laboring for the most part all season. But just like in most starts, his fastball had the velocity, but lacked the command. He topped out at 98 miles per hour in the first inning, but didn’t top 95 after the second.
“I was not able to maintain, and it did not jump out the way I needed it to,” Sale said. “I was just kind of feeling like I was all over the place with my delivery and arm action. I’m just trying to figure it out.”
Three of his first 11 four-seamers got swing and misses. The last 29? Zero.
“We saw the at-bats got better after the third inning,” Cora said. “I don’t know if it’s us and how we attack guys with him. This guy, he’s one of the best pitchers in the big leagues.
In that third inning, Justin Turner popped Sale for a solo shot to left — the 17th home run he’s allowed this season, good for 1.4 per nine innings, the highest clip of his career.
Cora took the blame.
“We need to get this right and that’s on us, the coaching staff,” Cora said. “If it’s mechanics or usage, we have to get him in the right place.”
Xander Bogaerts got the Red Sox on the board in the fourth with a solo homer of his own, shrinking the Sox hole to 2-1, but Kike Hernandez singled to start the fifth on a four-seamer that was just 92 mph. Sale then plunked Austin Barnes with a slider to put runners at first and second.
Taylor lined out, but Turner once again got to Sale, doubling in a run on a slider Sale tried to get in on his hands. David Freese doubled, too, bringing the score to 5-1.
After a Bellinger lineout, Cora had seen enough and Sale’s night was done after 4⅔ innings.
“I’m going out there every fifth day and getting my ass kicked,” Sale said. “It’s not fun. I’m still working, still grinding. I’m not going to give up, but you know it’s tough going out there and being a liability for your team.”
It was Sale’s 13th consecutive winless regular-season start at Fenway, setting a record — five other pitchers, including Eduardo Rodriguez from 2015–17, had runs of 12 straight. Sale beat the Yankees in Game 1 of last year’s Division Series, but his last regular-season win at home was on July 11, 2018.
The Red Sox scored a run in the sixth against former teammate Joe Kelly on a pair of singles to make it 5-2, but Vazquez fanned as the potential tying run. The Dodgers then added four runs in the seventh against Steven Wright — who left with a right foot contusion after Max Muncy lined a ball off him — and Marcus Walden, and single runs in the eighth and ninth to get comfortable.
“They said it was a contusion,” said Wright, who gave up solo homers to Bellinger and Pollock before Muncy’s single. “It hurt, man. I couldn’t feel it at first. It went numb. It’s been frustrating. The whole outing was frustrating.”
The Red Sox dominated the Dodgers in convincing fashion Friday night. The Dodgers returned the favor on Saturday. For Sale, this was the third game in a row that he’s allowed five earned runs.
Both general manager Dave Dombrowski and Cora have said all along that the team needs to play better. But that can’t happen without Sale giving them quality starts.
On a day in which Dombrowski acquired Orioles starter Andrew Cashner via trade to fill out the No. 5 spot in the rotation, one of his most important starters struggled once more.
“Like I said, I’m just not getting it done,” Sale said. “You’re going to hit some rough patches and things like that, and I’m usually able to get out of it. But for whatever reason, the cards aren’t falling my way and I’m not helping myself out either.”
Julian McWilliams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.