HOUSTON – Red Sox manager Alex Cora continues to be a box full of surprises in October.
Instead of calling on Nathan Eovaldi, Boston’s best starter this season, to take the ball in tonight’s Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Astros, Cora is instead giving the nod to Chris Sale.
This, despite the fact that Sale totaled just 10 outs over his last two starts.
Eovaldi will start Game 2 on Saturday. The flame-throwing righty would have been on the standard four days of rest in Game 1.
Why did Cora go in this direction?
“Just the whole series. It's a [best-of-seven] series,” Cora said. “You have to win four. Everybody has to be part of this. We feel comfortable with Chris with the rest that he got. And, obviously, giving Nate one more day is going to benefit.”
Because this will be the first game that the Red Sox have played since Monday, they will have a fully rested bullpen behind Sale.
Eovaldi is a safer bet to go deeper into Game 2 on Saturday, when the bullpen likely won’t be as rested.
In any other season this alignment wouldn’t have been a surprise, given that Sale -- a seven-time All-Star -- is the most accomplished pitcher in this series and one of the best in MLB over the last decade.
But in this case it is for two reasons.
The first is that Sale has made just 10 starts (including the postseason) in his return from Tommy John surgery, pitching to a 4.02 ERA.
The other is that Sale’s last two outings -- Game No. 162 against the Nationals and Game 2 of the AL Division Series against the Rays -- were his two worst of the season.
Sale, who has worked relentlessly behind the scenes in recent days to get himself back on track, appreciates the vote of confidence from his manager.
“It says a lot about him and his trust in me,” Sale said. “I appreciate that. I don't take that lightly.”
True to form, Sale was blunt about his last two starts, in which the Red Sox overcame a 5-1 deficit in the regular-season finale and a 5-2 hole after his abrupt departure (one inning, five runs) in Game 2 of the ALDS.
“You know, there's no hiding from it, I’ve been absolutely horrible,” Sale said. “Probably my two worst starts of my career back to back leading up to this.”
Instead of sulking about the way things have went for him, Sale has done everything in his power -- with the help of Boston's coaches and training staff -- to regain his groove.
“You know, I know what I had to do in between. I know I had a job to do, and I knew I had work to get in,” added Sale. “Following my last start in Tampa, I got off the mound every single day because I knew I had to get something going if we were going to be successful, and I know that I'm going to be a part of that. Trying to iron out some kinks and get back in a good rhythm and find it and just ride it out as long as I can.”
Sale identified two key issues that he’s been working on.
“Changeup and just fastball command are the two things,” Sale said. “My slider has been good enough, I would say up to this point. The two things I really needed to focus on was fastball command and just -- like I said last time -- consistency with my changeup. Throwing three out of 10 good is not cutting it here, and that was something that I really tried to focus on and sharpen over the last few days.”
Though Sale is never one to make excuses, he acknowledges that his return from Tommy John surgery has presented him with challenges that he’s never faced before.
“You can't run a marathon without running a marathon. You can't just wake up one day and say, 'You know what, I'm just going to run 26 miles,' and then do it and think you're going to be successful at that,” Sale said. “You have to practice that, and you have to just day in and day out just relentlessly, tirelessly work on that, and over the last week I've had enough time to do that, and we'll see what we get tomorrow, but I like where we're at.”
Cora finds it easy to envision a rebound start from his power lefty.
“It's Chris Sale,” Cora said. “At one point he had to pitch in this series, and we're very comfortable with him going [Friday]. I don't expect him to come out in the first inning. I expect him to go out there and pitch a good game and give us a chance to win.”
There will be no lack of confidence in the dugout or clubhouse with Sale opening up the series for the Red Sox.
“If you told me [that] Chris Sale was pitching in the ALCS first game, I think there wouldn't be a manager or team out there that wouldn't feel confident with him going out there,” slugger J.D. Martinez said. “I mean, yeah, he has had some struggles. You know, he has kind of got thrown back into things due to his injury. The last couple of months he has been thrown into it, into a pennant race, so it's been a lot of a task for him. But it's Chris, you know?”