BOSTON -- For a while, it felt like Chris Sale was going to put together one of those historic performances that would be remembered forever in the annals of Red Sox history.
That’s how dominant Sale was on this frigid Tuesday night at Fenway Park in which he struck out a career-high 17 against the Rockies. Perhaps most impressively, Sale became the first pitcher in history to strike out 17 or more batters in a start lasting seven innings or fewer.
After no-hitting the Orioles for 5 2/3 innings and striking out 14 in his last start, Sale was perfect through 12 batters against the Rockies. He was at his overpowering best, allowing three hits and no walks over seven innings. It was the first 17-K game for a lefty pitcher since Johan Santana for the Twins in 2007.
“Yeah, fastball command and my slider was probably about as good as it’s ever been,” said Sale.
The only problem is that the Red Sox lost to the Rockies, 5-4, in 11 innings.
Sale had a 3-2 lead and 17 K’s after seven. Which is when Boston manager Alex Cora decided to pull Sale at 108 pitches. After the shoulder problems Sale experienced in the second half last year, the Red Sox have been conservative in building him back up. They weren’t going to jeopardize that plan so he could break a record.
“That was fun to watch,” said Cora. “The first time [I’ve] been in something like that, you know? Watching the strikeouts and watching the pitch count. You want him to go as deep as possible. In the tunnel he goes, ‘You’re not going to let me get 20?’ Sarcastic, but probably serious. Great performance. Fastballs, changeups, sliders. In and out. Up. That was pretty cool to watch.”
Sale could taste the chance to make history and he wanted to go after it. But he didn’t argue with Cora.
“I don’t think there’s any pitcher on the planet … you’ve got 17 punchouts, you definitely want to go out for [another] inning,” said Sale. “But I respect him as much as anybody on the planet and I’ll never question anything he does, even in regard to that.”
Sale bemoaned the one hiccup that cost his team. That would be the two-run homer Nolan Arenado tagged him for in the seventh to trim Boston’s lead.
“Baseball is very much a timing game,” said Sale. “Seven innings is great and 17 punchouts is great but at the same time, I had terrible timing with giving up the runs I did. I think [NESN announcer Jerry] Remy said it in like the 10th or 11th inning. That was the one that got them back in this game and gave them a breath of fresh air.
“So you know, all things aside, I think that was the one that kind of got us the most and gave them a new life and put some pep in their step. I appreciate what happened tonight. I’m not taking away from that. But at the same time, it’s pretty crappy timing to give up a two-run homer and give a team a new life.”
The Red Sox tied their own franchise record with 24 strikeouts in a game. Boston pitchers struck out 21 over the first nine innings. The only other time that has happened in MLB history was when the Red Sox did it against the Rays on Sept. 25, 2016.
Big picture -- Sale is back!
The Red Sox can take heart in the fact that Sale has been filthy in his last three starts, striking out 41 of the 76 batters he’s faced while walking just one. Sale’s early-season slump feels like a long time ago.
Sale worked tirelessly with Cora, pitching coach Dana LeVangie and bullpen coach Craig Bjornson to become himself again. And now he is.
“I talked a lot with CB and Dana and even AC about just pitch selection, where my hands are breaking, arm path stuff, it was just kind of getting back to things that made me successful before,” said Sale. “Picked up a couple of bad habits, tried to kick those, just delivery stuff, just putting it all together at the right time.”
Sale became the first pitcher to strike out 14-plus batters in consecutive starts since Clayton Kershaw in 2015. When Kershaw did it, it was a week after Sale had accomplished the feat for the White Sox.
He was also the first Sox pitcher to punch out as many as 17 since Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez hit that number on May 6, 2000. The down note was that Sale became the first pitcher since Martinez on that May night in 2000 to have his team lose a game with that many strikeouts.
Bitterness of wasting top effort
“It sucks, honestly,” said Cora.
Nobody will ever know how the night might have turned out if Cora had thrown caution to the wind and sent Sale back out for the eighth. But it took no more than a handshake for Sale to know his night was over.
“AC’s got two handshakes and you get one or the other and you know which one is the done one,” Sale said. “He knows more about this game than anybody I know. Given the circumstances, our bullpen and where they’ve been and who’s coming in after me, I had all the confidence in the world in the rest of that game.”