Sale shows how he can still be an ace for Red Sox

Veteran lefty has best start in months by leaning on swing-and-miss slider, hitting spots

September 17th, 2023

TORONTO -- A week ago, sounded defeated. His team had just scored 12 runs and belted 23 hits and he still took the loss, lasting just four innings against the Orioles.

The Saturday that Sale experienced at Rogers Centre couldn’t have been any more different than the one at Fenway Park on Sept. 9.

The 34-year-old lefty led with a dominant slider and pitched like the ace he so badly wants to be for the first time in months. Over six innings (plus one batter in the seventh), Sale held the Blue Jays to two hits and one run, walking two and striking out 10. The Red Sox wound up losing the contest, 4-3, in 13 innings.

It was easily the best of the seven starts Sale has made since returning from the 60-day injured list on Aug. 11.

“Pitching-wise, I think Chris was great,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “I think location-wise, it was his best one of the season. Stuff-wise, he was OK, but the breaking ball was good, the changeup was OK. The fastball command was outstanding. A good one.”

And it was a statement start for those who thought the Red Sox should just shut Sale down, now that the club is out of contention.

“Very important,” Sale said. “It's been a while since I've finished a season, so I'm not going to give up. That's definitely not the way to go. Obviously, we’re in a tough situation. At least we can go out there and play for pride, and I'm not going to give up. We're not going to cash it in. We've still got to compete.”

Cora agreed there is little benefit for Sale not to finish out the season.

“It's just very important for him to post, and we respect that and we're not going to unplug it just to unplug it,” Cora said. “We still have to compete and go out there and put our best roster out there. Obviously, there's situations where we have to be smart about it. But in this [situation], I do believe him pitching every five days is important.”

For this one, Sale got two extra days of rest so he could regroup after his tough outing against the Orioles.

“I think just being able to get a couple extra days of rest, I felt like it helped my command more than anything, just not trying to play catchup out there and being able to kind of throw things where I wanted to throw them,” said Sale. “So that was nice.”

Of the 19 times the Blue Jays swung at Sale’s slider, they whiffed on 10. Sale came out barely cracking 90 mph in the first inning, but he reached back and hit 93 or higher seven times in the fifth through seventh.

For Sale, Saturday’s game could be a template for how he can still thrive when he doesn’t have overpowering stuff.

“That’s what I told him,” Cora said. “I said, ‘Today was a big step for us because we know that the 97, 98 is not gonna be there all the time.’ But compare his stuff in this one with the Kansas City one, and in Kansas City, he grinded through it with the same stuff. This one, he was able to pitch. And that was good to see.”

With one year left on his contract, Sale demonstrated a vision of what he can possibly be if he can make the transition from fireballer to pitcher.

“No matter how hard you throw it or what you’ve got out there, you’ve just got to find a way to compete,” Sale said. “For me, I think it's just keeping the ball down, locating my fastball and keeping it on the corners.”

Of course, the biggest obstacle has been health. After dealing with a barrage of injuries in recent years, Sale just wants to be able to make his starts and let the chips fall where they may.

For the first time in a while, Sale left the ballpark feeling good about his day at the office.

“I’m tough on myself. I have high expectations. I've been absent for a while,” said Sale. “So when I'm out there, I'd like to at least do what I'm supposed to do. So it was a step in the right direction, for sure.”