BOSTON -- After all the games the Red Sox have won over the six months of the regular season, if they don't win Game 1 against the Yankees or the A's, they could lose their season in a best-of-five American League Division Series, even if neither the Yanks or A's
BOSTON -- After all the games the Red Sox have won over the six months of the regular season, if they don't win Game 1 against the Yankees or the A's, they could lose their season in a best-of-five American League Division Series, even if neither the Yanks or A's dazzle you with starting pitching, let's face it.
There is one bogeyman -- or men -- for the Red Sox after what has been a truly magical season so far. Somehow it's pitching. You wouldn't think that a team with 107 victories, so far, would be afraid of its own pitching staff going into October. But, man oh man, is it ever at Fenway Park.
Their ace, Chris Sale, threw 4 2/3 innings and 92 pitches on Wednesday night against the Orioles, the second coming of the 1962 Mets. Sale, who has been on the disabled list twice since the All-Star break, gave up four hits and three runs and hit a couple of guys. And got hit hard. Alex Cora, the Red Sox's manager, and all of Red Sox Nation wanted to see Sale be his spectacular self from the first half of the season, get to 100 pitches, strike out 10 or so more guys, and look as if he couldn't wait for Game 1 of their Division Series, to begin a week from Friday at Fenway.
Not what they got, not what they saw.
"Obviously I'm not where I want to be," is what Sale told the media after the game.
Then he talked about not creating the torque he creates when he is at his best, and his manager talked about how Sale's hips weren't firing, and said there would be a bullpen session this week.
"Hopefully he can fix it," is what Cora said.
Sale came out in the first inning throwing so many sliders and changeups you thought he had turned into the current version of Carsten Sabathia. He hit Cedric Mullins, gave up a triple to Trey Mancini that was nearly a home run to right, hit Adam Jones. Sale did pitch better after that, ended up striking out eight in four-plus innings. But Boston really did want him to look, in a handful of innings Wednesday night, what he had looked like in the early innings of this season. The Red Sox wanted him to be one of the true aces of the sport, in there with Justin Verlander and Blake Snell and Max Scherzer and all the other top guys.
Not so much.
Again: The Red Sox, who still have a chance to win 110 games, do not want Sale to fall behind 0-1 in Game 1. Because then they are expected to give the ball to David Price in Game 2. If the Yankees are the opponent, here are Price's numbers against the Yanks this season: 0-3, with a 10.34 ERA. And if you're thinking that maybe they could hold Price back to Game 3 at Yankee Stadium, well, duck. His numbers there this season are 0-2, 12.46 ERA, eight home runs allowed in 8 2/3 innings.
We have not even talked about the issues in Boston's bullpen yet, where Matt Barnes, healthy again, got bounced around by Baltimore as the second game of Wednesday's doubleheader became a beatdown. So did closer Craig Kimbrel, who was in there for the work and instead felt as if he got worked over by pretty patient O's hitters instead, walking three men in a third of an inning, and hitting a batter himself.
The Red Sox can really hit, everybody knows that. They have two legitimate AL MVP Award candidates in Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez. When they sent Sale to the mound on Wednesday night, and would send Kimbrel out there later, they had just smacked around the Orioles 19-3 in a makeup game in the afternoon, when everybody except Cora seemed to hit a home run, even though Alex only hit three more home runs in his whole career than Mookie has hit this season.
But as unsettled as the Red Sox's bullpen is, the nightmare scenario for Boston involves its three top starters, Sale and Price and Porcello, two of whom are former AL Cy Young Award winners but who have a combined record of 2-13 in the postseason. Sale has the smallest sampling, of course, not making the postseason until he got to the Red Sox, but here are the numbers for all three, anyway:
• Sale, 0-2, 8.38 ERA
• Porcello, 0-3, 5.47 ERA
• Price, 2-8, 5.03 ERA
This will be Sale's second postseason with the Sox, the third for Porcello and Price. Not one of them has won a postseason game in a Red Sox uniform. Obviously not one of them has ever played on a team remotely this talented or this good. Sale was obviously tired last season by the time Boston got to its ALDS against Houston, and came out of the bullpen to pitch brilliantly for four scoreless innings before Alex Bregman took him out of Fenway in the eighth, on the way to the Astros winning the game, 5-4, and advancing to the AL Championship Series.
The Red Sox need Sale to pitch that way in Game 1, and for more than four innings. They need him to look the way he did as far back as Opening Day in St. Petersburg, when he pitched six one-hit innings against the Rays. They don't want to see the sketchy performance and velocity -- he hit 94 mph four times -- he showed against the O's.
"Not great," Cora said.
The Red Sox need Sale to be great next Friday, when a team that is 107-52 needs to get to 1-0.
Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.