BALTIMORE -- The type of show put on by Chris Sale on Sunday afternoon at Camden Yards would usually come during a midseason groove or perhaps down the road in front of a buzzing October crowd at Fenway Park. At the very least, it certainly would not be anticipated in his first start off the disabled list in more than two weeks.
But surprises like Sale's 12 strikeouts in five innings in the series-sweeping 4-1 win over the Orioles have become more expected. As the days go by, Sale seemingly never takes a step back. On Sunday, he became the first Red Sox player to post an ERA under 0.20 in seven consecutive starts since 1913 -- when ERA became an official stat -- and the seventh pitcher in history to strike out a dozen in five innings or fewer.
"I was fired up to get back out there. It's what I do, it's my job," said Sale, who added that the only saving grace from his disabled-list stint might be that it conserved a couple starts for down the road. "I'm not a big fan of sitting on the sidelines."
Manager Alex Cora employed a 75-pitch limit to Sale, and the lefty made the most of the eventual 68 pitches he threw. Five of his punchouts were on pitches 99 mph and faster. Sale struck out every Oriole at least once -- several twice -- and conceded just one baserunner in his outing.
What's more, Sale casually mixed in 90-mph changeups and 83-mph sliders with his nearly 100-mph fastball after over two weeks without a start.
"Seemed like he didn't miss a beat even being on the disabled list," said Cora, who admits he was tantalized by the idea of keeping Sale on the mound. " … [But] we have to be disciplined. The way he was throwing the ball, it was very tempting for us to say, 'One more inning,' but we've been disciplined the whole season, and we stick with the plan."
"Doesn't seem fair," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of Sale.
Sale operated under the luxury of a lead from the get-go. Steve Pearce launched his sixth homer in 24 games in a Red Sox uniform in the first inning, and Boston scored again in the fourth on an error after J.D. Martinez doubled. It tacked on two more in the ninth on a Jackie Bradley Jr. single and a Mookie Betts double.
But the tremors started the moment Sale trotted off the mound to a raucous applause after emphatically ending a three-strikeout final inning with a 99-mph pitch to Renato Nunez. An overworked bullpen that entered Sunday after recording 47 outs in a span of 24 hours faced two bases-loaded situations in the ensuing four innings.
Highlighted by a dynamite slider from Ryan Brasier to strike out Trey Mancini and end the first bases-loaded threat in the sixth, the righty continued his ascent from Japan in 2017 to Minor Leaguer in Spring Training to reliever in high-leverage situations for the best team in baseball.
"That slider struck me out, too," Sale joked. " … It's hard to believe he was in Japan last year, basically in their Minor League system. Kudos to our scouting department and [Cora]. He saw him in Spring Training, saw what he had to offer and here he is now. He's a big key to our bullpen and features some pretty good stuff, and we like it when he's in there."
Matt Barnes escaped the Sox's second bases-loaded situation; with one out in the eighth, he yielded a run on a sac fly from Trey Mancini, then struck out Timothy Beckham. Craig Kimbrel then evaded a two-on-with-no-outs scenario to shut the door and maintain a 9 1/2-game lead over the Yankees in the American League East.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Brasier comes up clutch: Brasier bailed out Tyler Thornburg -- and his team -- by winning a nine-pitch battle against Mancini. A deft slider sent the red-hot Mancini and the trio of Orioles on base back to the dugout. On a weekend when the bullpen was overworked, Brasier -- who pitched 2 1/3 scoreless innings across three days in Baltimore -- shined brightest.
"That's a testament to his perseverance and our hard work," Cora said of Brasier's climb. "[The bullpen was] amazing, regardless of what people think or how many runs they score. We win the two tough starts and then the doubleheader. For us to get 27 outs on a nightly basis, that was impressive. You have to give them credit. If I was looking forward to tomorrow as an off-day, know that group is very happy that tomorrow is an off-day."
The Red Sox's 85 wins are the most for the franchise through 120 games, and Boston is 50 games above .500 for the first time since 1946. The Sox will need to go 21-21 or better in their final 42 games in order to break the franchise's single-season-wins record of 105, which was set in '12.
HE SAID IT
"They get the tack-on run late. That's what we did when we were real competitive. Those are the type of things you have to do. Obviously, they are more than just a good offensive club. The point I would make is you see what our record is and see what their record is, and all four games, there were moments where we were very close to winning the game. But that's what happens at this level, it's a small separator. And there's some experience factor, too." -- Showalter, on what makes the Red Sox successful
Following an off-day Monday, Rick Porcello will take the mound to begin a two-game series against righty Nick Pivetta and the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. After a lights-out start against the Yankees, Porcello was roughed up last time out, getting tagged for seven runs in four-plus innings in Toronto. First pitch Tuesday is set for 7:05 p.m. ET.