Sale less than hoped
With his shoulder problems seemingly behind him, Chris Sale entered his second postseason with higher expectations for himself, and ready to lead the Red Sox to bigger things.
The Red Sox ace had a better start to October this time around. He was strong in Game 1 of the Division Series against the Yankees, and his scoreless eighth inning of relief in New York earlier this week was pivotal in a series-clinching win.
But in last night’s Game 1 of the AL Championship Series, Sale didn’t look like his typical self.
Though he gave up just one hit before he exited Fenway, the left-hander was far from sharp. And, considering he was opposing Astros ace Justin Verlander, there wasn’t much room for error.
Four nights after shutting down the Yankees in an efficient manner, manager Alex Cora was hoping for six innings out of Sale before he turned to his bullpen. Sale lasted only four innings, and the Sox trailed 2-0 when he departed.
On a cold night at Fenway, Sale lacked velocity and command — two of his trademarks — and it left the Red Sox in a temporary hole.
Against the Yankees last week, all eyes were on Sale’s fastball velocity, which had ticked down in his final start of the regular season. Against New York, it was back to normal, as he came out firing in the first inning against the Yanks with a heater that averaged 95.1 mph.
Last night against the defending World Series champs, Sale’s velocity was back down. His first fastball of the night was 91 mph, and he averaged 91.3 mph in the first inning. He averaged just 92 mph on fastballs over the course of his outing.
It didn’t come back to bite him as he navigated through a scoreless first, but he couldn’t overcome a combination of a lack of velocity and command in the second.
After Sale struck out Tyler White, then got Marwin Gonzalez to line out to begin the frame, the lefty suddenly couldn’t find the strike zone. He walked Carlos Correa before throwing a wild 3-2 pitch behind Martin Maldonado to walk him as well. He then walked Josh Reddick to load the bases.
George Springer made him pay, taking a 3-2 fastball and rifling it to left field on a ball third baseman Eduardo Nunez was unable to come up with. That scored Correa and Maldonado to give the Astros a 2-0 lead.
Sale issued a leadoff walk to Alex Bregman in the third, but the lefty was able to find a groove. He forced a pop fly by Yuli Gurriel before Sandy Leon caught Bregman trying to steal second. Sale then punched out White again to end the third.
Sale was his typical self in the fourth with a 1-2-3 inning. After getting just two swings and misses in his first 69 pitches, he had four in the 17-pitch fourth, which ended with an 89 mph backdoor slider that caught Maldonado looking. It was by far his best inning, but at 86 pitches, Cora elected to turn to Joe Kelly.
Verlander seemed unhittable through the first four innings, but the Red Sox finally got to him in the fifth.
After setting down the Red Sox lineup easily in 48 pitches through the first four innings, the right-hander lost control in the fifth. He gave up a leadoff single to Steve Pearce, then struck out Brock Holt looking before he couldn’t find the strike zone. He surrendered three consecutive walks — Nunez, Jackie Bradley Jr., Mitch Moreland — that scored the Sox’ first run. After Mookie Betts hit into a force out at the plate, the Sox scored the tying run on a wild pitch to Andrew Benintendi.
The Astros got the lead right back in the top of the sixth as Kelly hit Bregman with a 100 mph pitch, and Gurriel hit what should have been a double play ball to third, but Nunez couldn’t handle the ball. Three batters later, Correa knocked in Bregman by lofting a single to left-center.
SENDING HIM BACK: Red Sox hitter Andrew Benintendi reacts to a called third strike to end the fifth inning of ALCS Game 1 last night at Fenway Park.