BOSTON -- The Red Sox never lost hope in Chris Sale. Even after he struggled through his first two outings of the postseason, they’ve seen enough of what the left-hander can do at his best to know it was only a matter of time before he returned to form.
Handed the ball for a pivotal Game 5 of the American League Championship Series on Wednesday, Sale reached back and found his vintage stuff. The tantalizing power fastball. The devastating wipeout slider. Sale’s full arsenal was on display.
“I had to leave everything out there,” Sale said. “I told myself coming into this game I had a job to do. I left [it all] out there on that mound tonight, that's for damn sure.”
Still, it wasn’t enough for the Red Sox, who fell, 9-1, to the Astros at Fenway Park and will now head back to Houston on the brink of elimination.
The height of Sale’s brilliance showed up in the fourth inning. Facing a tough one-out spot with runners at the corners and Boston already trailing 1-0, Sale received a mound visit from pitching coach Dave Bush. Maybe it was the extra adrenaline he fed off from a raucous sellout crowd that rose to its feet or the sense of an early exit looming as Adam Ottavino began getting loose in the Red Sox bullpen. Whatever the case, Sale found another gear.
He proceeded to escape the jam by striking out Carlos Correa and Kyle Tucker consecutively. The punchout of Tucker was particularly impressive. Sale threw his three fastest pitches of the night in that at-bat, including a blazing 98.5 mph fastball as the putaway pitch. Not only was that Sale’s fastest pitch of the year, it also marked his fastest he’s thrown since 2018.
“I think, mechanic-wise, this was his best [stuff] in the last month and a half,” manager Alex Cora said. “Velocity was good. Location was good. Fastball inside to righties was really good. That's what we saw today.”
Seemingly emptying the tank in that fourth to finish the inning at 71 pitches practically guaranteed Sale would not see past the fifth. That was until he made quick work of the bottom of Houston’s lineup, needing only eight pitches for a 1-2-3 fifth. The efficient frame bought Sale a chance to begin the sixth inning. And perhaps therein lies what led to Boston’s downfall.
Despite the fact that Sale would be starting his third time through the Astros' lineup entering the sixth, Cora decided to let him start the frame. After the first two batters reached on a walk and error, Yordan Alvarez, who had already homered off Sale in the second, delivered the left-hander a knockout blow in the form of a two-run double that sparked a rally that continued against Boston’s bullpen for a five-run inning to break the game open.
Though Alvarez’s double did the damage, it was the leadoff walk of Jose Altuve in the sixth leaving Sale most frustrated.
“We know this since I was 12 years old, leadoff walks are going to kill you,” Sale said. “It ended up being the straw that broke the back right there. That's on me.”
Asked if there was any thought to walking Alvarez in that spot, Cora said there was none.
“Sometimes we get caught up too much on third time through the order,” Cora said. “He was throwing the ball great. The stuff was really good. He was throwing 97 with a good slider.
“I understand how people think, but there were two lefties coming up. He is Chris Sale. He is a lefty. He has made a living getting lefties out.”
Alvarez derailed Sale’s night, going 3-for-3 with three RBIs against the left-hander while the rest of Houston’s lineup went 0-for-17. Even so, Sale ended up matching the longest start of his postseason career, racking up seven strikeouts across 5 1/3 innings and being charged with four runs (two earned) on three hits and two walks.
“His fastball was electric,” said Red Sox catcher Christian Vázquez. “That strikeout with Tucker, he showed everybody that he still has the fastball. It was an electric fastball, and a lot of swing and miss today with the slider, so that's a good sign.”
The only way Sale makes another start this postseason would come in the World Series if the Red Sox can win the next two games against Houston. Should that happen, they might just have their ace back on track.
Of course, if Sale has his way, he’ll make another ALCS appearance before it’s all said and done.
“I'll pitch [Friday] if I have to,” Sale said. “I got nothing else going on for the next six months. It's all hands on deck.”