The Red Sox now ask Chris Sale, who has been such a great starter for them, to get them a save. Maybe of a whole season.
Sale, who on Saturday makes his first start in two years, certainly can’t reverse Boston’s current fortunes all by himself. He can’t change the way the Sox have pitched and the way they have played since the All-Star break, at this moment when they look more likely to end up in fourth place in the American League East and not back in first place, where they spent so much of the season.
But whatever chance they have to prove that they weren’t punching above their weight for more than three months starts with Sale’s return to Boston and to the big leagues on Saturday.
No one knows if he will ever again be the blow-away strikeout guy he was when he first got to Boston, 308 strikeouts in 214 1/3 innings in 2017, then 237 in 158 innings with a 2.11 earned run average in 2018. All Red Sox fans know for sure is how much they need Sale to come back and pitch like an ace again, to look like the pitcher who struck out the side against the Dodgers in the bottom of the 9th of Game 5 of the 2018 World Series, finishing things off in style against Manny Machado.
He is not pitching a rehab start in Portland, Maine, on Saturday. Or making one last rehab start for the Worcester WooSox. He is back at Fenway Park. In all ways, this stuff gets real now.
"I felt like what I did tonight, I could have gone and done that in a big league game," Sale said after his last start for the WooSox last weekend. "I would say my last two starts, I've felt normal."
Even when Sale wasn’t normal, when he was clearly not himself and losing velocity before being shut down for good in the summer of 2019, he still provided dazzling performances. He struck out 17 Rockies in seven innings in May. He struck out 10 Orioles in June of that year.
But his velocity was dropping. He was clearly not the pitcher who could gun it up to 100 mph when he wanted to after first arriving in Boston. Finally he was shut down for good. He had Tommy John surgery. He sat out all of last season as he was rehabbing. Now he is back for the 2021 Sox, better late than never, fans of the team hoping it’s not too late for him and for their team.
Most Red Sox fans know the numbers for their starters, and the pressure they have put on the bullpen, which has fallen apart lately. The ERA for Red Sox starters over the last month is more than five runs a game. In that time, only five other teams in baseball have been worse. The guys in the rotation have not been able to average five innings per start. Martin Perez, once a starter, has now been sent to the pen. So has Garrett Richards. The best ERA in the current rotation belongs to Nathan Eovaldi, at 3.92. Nick Pivetta is at 4.34. Eduardo Rodriguez is at 5.24.
“Help is on the way,” shortstop Xander Bogaerts said the other day, speaking not just about Chris Sale, but about Kyle Schwarber, whom the Red Sox got from the Nationals, being ready to make his Sox debut this weekend.
The Red Sox are not looking for Sale to give them big innings at the start. Of course it will take more than star pitching from him to save them, and to alleviate the pressure the Red Sox starters have been putting on their relievers. Even the other night when the Red Sox took a 20-1 lead into the 9th inning of a laugher against the Rays, Phillips Valdez gave up a grand slam and seven runs in all. On Thursday afternoon, with a promising kid named Tanner Houck having gotten the start, a 1-1 game turned into an 8-1 victory for the Rays, who have blown past the Red Sox over the past few weeks.
But now Chris Sale is back, as the Red Sox get three against the Orioles before going to New York to play three games in two days against the Yankees, then play six against the Rangers and Twins. Eovaldi has been the No. 1 with 10 victories. Now Chris Sale is supposed to go back to being their No. 1.
“Obviously, teams are going to make moves in the upcoming weeks and try to improve,” manager Alex Cora said before the Trade Deadline. “One thing for sure, nobody can trade for Chris Sale. We can add Chris Sale to our equation and we’re very excited about that.”
The Red Sox did not add significant pitching at the Deadline, even if they did make the trade for Schwarber. Everybody knows that the Rays and Yankees and Blue Jays all made significant upgrades. The momentum has gone all wrong for the Red Sox. Sale can’t do everything to stop it. He can do something. Start a game, maybe help save a season. Summer Sale at Fenway.