NEW YORK — The two-strike fastball Chris Sale threw to Gio Urshela in the fourth inning cut through the top of the strike zone. Take a seat.
But umpire Mike Estabrook missed it and Urshela eventually lined a single into center.
Sale had every right to be annoyed, and he was. But Cameron Maybin popped the next pitch up to second base and at that point all Sale had to do was retire Kyle Higashioka or Breyvic Valera to end the inning without a run scoring.
Higashioka came to a plate a career .145 hitter who, prior to Saturday, had never faced Sale.
Valera, a career .218 hitter, was playing his second game for the Yankees. He, too, had never faced Sale.
Higashioka lined a poorly located slider down the third base line that Rafael Devers made a good play on to keep it from being a double. Sale then missed badly with two changeups to Valera, before throwing a four-seam fastball smack over the plate that was lined into right field to drive in a run.
They were the first of five consecutive hits off Sale as the Yankees scored seven runs in the inning and went on to beat the Red Sox, 9-2, in the first game of a doubleheader on Saturday.
Sale and manager Alex Cora were ejected during the inning for cursing out Estabrook, and afterward both blamed the umpire for the loss.
“For me, he changed the whole complexion of the game,” Cora said.
Sale even called for Major League Baseball to find a way to punish umpires for their mistakes.
“There’s got to be something that can be done about this,” he said. “We’re held accountable as players, as coaches. I take pride in holding myself accountable . . . Nothing will happen to him.”
Estabrook was indeed an advertisement for robot umps on Saturday, badly missing several pitches. But for the Sox to pin the loss on him was shameful.
Sale is one of the best pitchers of his generation, the guy who carved up Manny Machado on four pitches to end the World Series last fall. If he can’t retire two light-hitting backups to end an inning, the Sox have pitching problems that go beyond bad calls.
And they do. Sale, Nathan Eovaldi, Rick Porcello, David Price, and Eduardo Rodriguez are 34-28 with a 4.73 earned run average this season. They were 61-26 with a 3.46 ERA last season.
Even when accounting for some regression after last season’s spectacular success, a 37 percent hike in ERA isn’t a fluke. It’s a breakdown in the system going back to the team’s slow-motion approach to spring training.
Ultimately, it’s up to the players to get it right. The Sox are 8-15 in games Sale has started and he’s 5-11 with a 4.68 ERA. That includes an 0-4 record and 9.90 ERA in four starts against the Yankees.
“We’ve been talking about it all the time,” Cora said. “They know it. These guys, like I’ve been saying all along, they understand that this team was built around the rotation. They haven’t been effective. There’s no hiding.
“We keep working. We believe in them.”
There’s not much choice. Porcello will be a free agent after the season, but the Sox are tied to Sale for five more seasons and Eovaldi and Price for three more. Rodriguez, who right now is the one starter you’d trust, is under team control for two more seasons.
That Sale made accountability his theme after the game was fitting. Poor starting pitching is why the Red Sox are skidding out of contention for a playoff spot, and somebody will pay for that.
Pitching coach Dana LeVangie, who has been with the Sox as a player, coach, and scout since 1991, will bear the brunt of it unless something changes, unfair as it may be.
The Sox held a perfunctory players-only meeting after the first game. Sale, one of the few players who stuck around to talk to reporters, said it was about sticking together and changing the tenor of the season.
“We’ve got to have each other’s backs, and find a way to grind through and get to where we need to be,” he said. “We’ve got two months to figure this out.”
There’s little evidence of any unity, other than perhaps a shared disappointment the trade deadline passed without president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski making any additions.
The Sox are 0-5 since the deadline, part of seven-game losing streak that has them a stunning 13½ games behind the Yankees and 5½ out in the wild card.
They’re also 1-7 at Yankee Stadium this season.
Those are all red flags — or perhaps just one large white one.