ST. PETERSBURG -- There was likely no one more thrilled by Rafael Devers’ go-ahead homer in Sunday’s Game 162 than Chris Sale, who was chased early from the season’s final regular-season game with a trip to the postseason on the line.
The Red Sox left-hander lasted only 2 1/3 innings in that start against the Nationals in Washington. He was granted an opportunity for redemption by Devers’ blast, which powered a come-from-behind 7-5 win, and Boston’s victory over the Yankees in Tuesday’s American League Wild Card Game at Fenway Park. That redemption could come when Sale starts Game 2 of the AL Division Series vs. the Rays on Friday night.
“That was big,” Sale said. “What I saw in that game was a lot of momentum, a lot of energy shift, and guys just being dogs. I did absolutely nothing to help our team win; I actually put us in a horrendous spot in that game. … I was obviously very appreciative of that, because that would’ve been a very not fun last game of the year.”
Sale, 32, made nine regular-season starts after returning from Tommy John surgery on Aug. 14, going 5-1 with a 3.16 ERA over 42 2/3 innings. Sale said he is “figuring this stuff out as we go,” which suggests the Rays could see a steady diet of four-seam fastballs and sliders.
“Not too many guys can come out of Tommy John surgery and you throw him in the middle of a pennant race and do the things that he has done,” Boston manager Alex Cora said. “He has given us a chance to win. … I think he has been solid. I don’t think the changeup is where he wants, but he felt like this week he made a few adjustments that might play tomorrow.”
Opponents this season are 18-for-40 (.450) off Sale’s changeup, including two doubles and two homers. Sale said he focused on his arm action and mechanics coming off the shaky Nationals start, when he struck out seven but allowed two runs on three walks and four hits.
“I think the biggest flaw in that [changeup] is the consistency,” Sale said. “If I throw 10 of them, four of them are really good. Two of them are ‘ehh’ and the other ones are batting practice. I just have to find a way to get more consistent with that pitch.”
Two of Sale’s post-Tommy John outings came against the Rays, providing something of a blueprint to work off. Sale hurled six innings of two-run ball in a 3-2 Red Sox victory on Sept. 1 at Tropicana Field, where he is 5-3 with a 2.09 ERA in 12 career games (11 starts).
Sale also faced Tampa Bay his next time out, permitting five runs (one earned) and 10 hits over 3 2/3 innings in Boston’s 11-10 loss at Fenway on Sept. 6. Sale said that he sees Sunday’s comeback at Washington as a good indicator of what the Sox can achieve in a postseason setting.
“We saw the scoreboard; we knew what the deal was,” Sale said. “We knew our backs were against the wall to win that game. To tell yourself, ‘Hey, we have to win this game,’ then proceed to win that game -- it says a lot about who we have in this clubhouse.”
While Sale’s focus is on providing a deep Game 2 outing, he could be a factor later in the series as well. Cora said he’d be careful using Sale as a reliever, though he made appearances out of Boston's bullpen in the 2017 and ’18 postseasons, including a scoreless three-strikeout inning to seal Game 5 of the 2018 World Series.
“Absolutely,” Sale said. “I think experience helps out a lot in this situation, with the playoffs and postseason. There’s no reason to save an arm to go sit on the couch. This is all the baseball we have left, and tomorrow might not come. It doesn’t matter when or where. Just hand me the ball, and I’m going to sling it until you take it.”