ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Maybe it’s a pattern. Maybe the real Chris Sale is ready to step up.
Certainly, the Red Sox are desperate for the 2019 return of the bona fide ace. And on Tuesday, the lefthander looked the part for a second straight start.
Except for a two-batter blip against the Rays — after retiring the first eight batters, Sale lost No. 9 hitter Mike Zunino to a walk, then for the first time this year gave up a homer on an 0-2 pitch when with Travis d’Arnaud clubbed a slider — Sale showed dominant stuff and staff-leading determination in a 5-4 Red Sox win.
He featured a fastball that topped out at 98 miles per hour, a slider that reduced several Rays batters to puddles, and backed up his promise to manager Alex Cora with two outs in the sixth inning that he would take care of Guillermo Heredia in three pitches. Sale, who was already at 114 pitches, needed just two.
“He owes me one,” Sale said of Cora.
For Sale, there was satisfaction in a second straight sharp outing. In his last 12 innings, he has given up two runs in while striking out 22. He has won consecutive outings for the first time since winning five straight from last June 24-July 22.
“That’s what it’s about. Anyone can go out there and do it once,” said Sale (5-9, 4.00 ERA). “You want to get on a roll. You want to feel like you’re the guy where the team feels like they’re going to win when you’re stepping out there. I obviously have a job to do here. I know what my role is for this team. I wanted to get back to that.”
Yet as promising as the lefthander’s last two outings have been, it remains to be seen if they mark a course correction or a midyear blip. For Sale and his rotation mates, the season has featured flashes of promise that often proved false starts. Until the Red Sox prove that they’ve broken that pattern over weeks or even months, it will remain difficult to see them as an elite team.
It is almost unprecedented for a team to win a championship with — and in spite of — a rotation that performs as poorly as the Red Sox starters to date. Cora and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski have said repeatedly that the Sox are built around their starting pitching.
“That was the script before the season,” Cora said.
It was a costly script. The team has invested almost $90 million in Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, Nate Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodriguez, and now Andrew Cashner. To date, however, the return on that investment has been dismal.
The Sox rotation entered Tuesday’s game with a 4.73 ERA, 19th in the majors. That’s more than a run and a half worse than the Rays rotation (3.18), and nearly half a run worse than the second-worst rotation ERA among the seven teams that appear to be contenders in the American League (the Yankees have a 4.26 mark).
Since the official embrace of ERA as a statistic in both leagues in 1913, there have been just three teams — the 2006 Cardinals (4.79), 2000 Yankees (4.87), and 1996 Yankees (4.96) — whose starters posted a collective ERA as high as the Red Sox rotation and still managed to win a championship. Obviously, it’s not impossible for the Red Sox to join that group, but it’s not a high-probability proposition.
On one hand, that surprising struggle should measure expectations and likely trade deadline ambitions. With Cashner already having been added to the rotation, the Red Sox appear open-minded about whether they’ll add, subtract, or stand pat between now and the July 31 trade deadline. The organization is prepared for any possible direction, depending both on the performance of the team in upcoming games against the Rays and Yankees and on the market opportunities that arise.
But the mere uncertainty about how much more to commit to a roster that is already the most expensive in baseball speaks volumes about where the Red Sox stand. The Red Sox have to ask themselves this: What is the point of a bullpen upgrade if the rotation cannot correct its course?
All the same, the fact that the rotation has not been able to achieve an extended run of success also points to the possibility for significant improvement simply with the roster at hand. Red Sox management believes that their starters largely have underperformed this year, but they have the ability to perform at a higher, more consistent level that has thus far eluded them.
There is still time for the rotation to emerge as a strength. The back-to-back outings by Rodriguez (seven shutout innings on Monday against the Rays) and Sale offer the team hope, as do the track records of the current members of the rotation.
“One thing about our guys,” said Cora. “You look at the baseball cards, the back part of [them], they’ve done it before. We trust them. We know they can do it again.”
If that happens, and with an offense that leads the majors in runs, the team has an opportunity to ride the sort of wave that it has yet to catch this season. That said, based on the evidence of more than 100 games, it’s also awfully difficult for the Red Sox to assume that their rotation will be something more than it has been — thus explaining the team’s current uncertainty and seemingly limited ambitions when it comes to the trade market.
For the Red Sox, contention relies on improvement from the players already on the roster. No roster moves before the end of the month will have a greater impact on the team’s playoff hopes than the players in whom they have already invested so much.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com.