A year ago, Chris Sale was the most dominant pitcher in baseball when he took the mound and Mookie Betts was the most dynamic, impactful player in the game. Both are extraordinary talents who throughout their careers have belonged in conversations about the game’s inner-circle elite.
For much of the 2019 season, neither has lived up to his own extraordinary standards. Yet in the 5-0 victory over the Blue Jays on Thursday, both players offered a reminder of the possibility that exists for the Red Sox if they do.
Sale entered Thursday with a 3-9 record and 4.27 ERA, despite an incredible 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings (second most in the majors). He’s had outings of sheer dominance, as when he struck out 17 Rockies in seven innings on May 14 and his complete-game shutout against the Royals on June 5, enough glimpses of the American League’s most overpowering pitcher of the decade to suggest that his talent hasn’t suddenly vanished.
“Honestly, I’m kind of tired of hearing about him struggling, because he’s got a 4 [ERA] and he’s leading the league in strikeouts and I’ve got a 5-and-a-half,” said Rick Porcello. “What am I going to tell him?”
Yet Sale looked like a pitcher in need of some measure of reassurance — not to mention some ideas about how to become more consistent — after three straight starts in which he’d allowed five runs, the longest such streak of his career. He’s spent plenty of time shaking his head and wondering what happened to command of his fastball and slider, while also struggling to comprehend going 13 consecutive regular-season starts at Fenway Park dating to last July 11 without receiving credit for a win — the longest drought in the venue’s 108-season history.
“This year has kind of been all over the place. I’ve been as bad as I’ve ever been in my career and I’ve also had some of the best games I’ve ever had in my career,” said Sale. “It’s more confusing than anything.”
On Thursday, the confusion vanished. Against Toronto — a team he’d “basically been throwing batting practice to,” in his words, on the way to a 7.78 ERA in three starts — Sale’s dominant slider was present from the outset.
In contrast to his prior outing against the Dodgers, in which the lefty was showing mid- and upper-90s velocity in the first inning only to see his fastball dip as the game progressed, Sale worked at a comfortable 90-92 mph with his fastball.
Perhaps more importantly, he used that pitch judiciously against a team that hunted fastballs against Sale earlier this month, unbalancing the Blue Jays lineup with a heavy dose of sliders — a pitch that featured much better late life on Thursday than in the Dodgers start — and changeups. Once Sale forced the Blue Jays to look for his off-speed pitches, he started blowing fastballs by them, topping out at 96-97 m.p.h. in the fifth inning, when Toronto had runners on base in a scoreless tie.
Sale was rewarded when the Red Sox broke through with a four-run fifth, a rally produced by a Sandy Leon RBI single and a three-run homer off Toronto starter and Rhode Island native Thomas Pannone from Raffy Devers, the 22-year-old’s 19th of the year and 50th of his career.
Entrusted with a lead, Sale didn’t look back, breezing through the sixth to wrap up a day he allowed just two singles and two walks, and struck out 12. It was the 11th outing of the year in which Sale struck out at least 10 batters — tied for the most in the majors — and the sixth time he got at least 20 swings-and-misses.
The performance offered a reminder of what Sale can be: A force who anchors the Red Sox, who works deep into games, and who sets up his bullpen for safe passage through the late innings. Marcus Walden breezed through two shutout innings, and Darwinzon Hernandez pitched a perfect ninth to complete the Red Sox’ fifth shutout of the year.
“You see it. You have a guy that can go out there, do what he did tonight, he’s in complete and total control of the ballgame,” said Porcello. “It’s a great recipe and we should win a lot of games with that formula.”
The same can be said of the lineup, with Betts serving as a top-of-the-order dynamo. On Thursday, Betts went 2-for-3 with a single to lead off the game, a 418-foot homer (his 14th) to left-center in the seventh inning to extend the lead to 5-0, a walk in front of the Devers homer, and a long flyout to center held in the park only by an unaccommodating 14 mph wind.
Betts is amidst an extended stretch of pulverizing pitches in a way that evokes his remarkable 2018 performance. His last 10 games, he’s hitting .463/.510/.854. He’s now scored runs in 13 consecutive games — tied with a 13-gamer by Ted Williams in 1946 for the longest single-season run in franchise history — and, with a major league-leading 86 runs for the year, he’s on pace to cross the plate 148 times, which would be the second-highest total ever by a Red Sox.
“Any time your name is mentioned [with Williams], you’ve done something right,” said Betts. “Things are kind of coming around. . . . I’ve finally found something that’s worked for a little while.”
The difference for the Red Sox offense — which has followed Betts’ lead, with the team averaging nearly two runs a game in the first inning since Devers was slotted behind Betts in the second spot of the order — has been palpable. The Sox again look like as explosive a lineup as there is in the game, while hoping that this is the sort of hot streak that Betts has proven capable of sustaining for months at a time.
“We know how important he is. He was the MVP last year, one of the guys who carried the offense,” said Cora. “We never doubted him controlling the zone. . . . Now that his swing is where he wants it, he becomes that dangerous.”
If Betts and Sale are dangerous, then the same can be said about the Sox. No midyear boost can have greater impact on the team than two of the best players in the game performing to such a standard once again. The Red Sox, who boarded their plane flight to Baltimore trailing Oakland and Cleveland by 2½ games for the second wild-card spot, can only hope that Thursday’s win against the Blue Jays offered a glimpse of better days ahead.