Chris Sale’s total innings of work and overall pitch count have each declined significantly entering his seventh straight All-Star Game. A prime contender to be named the American League’s starting pitcher for the third consecutive year, Sale signed off on the first half of 2018 with seven scoreless frames in Wednesday’s 4-2 victory over the Rangers.
BOSTON — The effort is already well underway to conserve Chris Sale’s energy prior to a presumed postseason appearance by the Red Sox.
Sale’s total innings of work and overall pitch count have each declined significantly entering his seventh straight All-Star Game. A prime contender to be named the American League’s starting pitcher for the third consecutive year, Sale signed off on the first half of 2018 with seven scoreless frames in Wednesday’s 4-2 victory over the Rangers.
The left-hander racked up double-digit strikeouts for the sixth time in his last seven starts, lowering his earned-run average during that blistering stretch to 0.94. Sale has allowed just 27 hits and fanned 78 in his last 48 innings, a 29-year-old at the peak of his considerable powers.
“It was more of the same — just trying to throw strikes and fill the zone,” Sale said. “Yet again the guys come through and put some runs on the board. It takes a little bit of the tension off.”
It is indeed that simple for Sale at this point. Take the ball to the mound, fire it to the plate upwards of 100 mph, mix in the occasional back-breaking changeup and knee-buckling slider, call it a night. But only if it looks this way in October will Boston fans truly be pleased.
The memories of an A.L. Division Series elimination by the Astros in 2017 still linger. Sale was hammered by Houston to the tune of 13 hits and nine earned runs in 9 2/3 innings, and whether or not he became the first A.L. pitcher to reach the 300-strikeout mark in 18 years suddenly meant nothing. The natural conclusion is the left-hander wore down over the course of the season, something that prompted Alex Cora to take a fresh look at Sale’s usage when he replaced John Farrell as Red Sox manager.
“We’ve got to give him credit because he’s been disciplined,” Cora said. “What we wanted to do from Day One in spring training, he was disciplined. He bought into it. He believed in it.”
Sale has thrown 12 1/3 fewer innings and 171 fewer pitches than he did through the same number of starts in 2017. He was held under 100 pitches in five of his first seven starts and has come up short of that mark in eight of his 20 outings. Contrast that with a much heavier workload last year, when Sale threw 100 or more pitches in each of his first nine starts and 23 of his first 25.
“The ball is coming out of his hand very clean,” Cora said. “It’s been impressive. We feel that now, with this break, he’s going to reset, reload, and he’s going to have a good second part of the season.”
Sale’s next scheduled start comes in the series finale at the Tigers next Sunday. David Price takes the ball for the opener of the three-game set in Detroit, and Cora declined to name a starter for the middle game. Brian Johnson, Hector Velazquez, and even Drew Pomeranz (left biceps tendinitis) could be among the candidates, provided Pomeranz is ready to come off the disabled list.
In the interim, Sale will pitch Tuesday in Washington. The starter would traditionally throw two innings, and any other pitchers would work at least one. That lines Sale up for a short stint and an extended rest period before beginning the drive into the season’s final two full months.
“You just try to recover a little bit,” Sale said. “I’m still going to get my work in and maintain. You don’t just want to sit on your butt for eight days and get all locked up. Try to be smart, limit the throws over the next few days, try to recover a little bit.”
Cora is certain to consult A.L. manager A.J. Hinch. As the Astros’ bench coach under Hinch last season, Cora saw first-hand the wall Sale hit entering the playoffs. The plan has been in place since early in the season to avoid a similar ending, and it appears to be working out nicely to this point.
“It’s kind of like a regular routine,” Cora said. “Go out there [to the bullpen] early. Whoever is starting — if [Hinch] decides that somebody else is starting — he can be right there with him. He goes out, he gets ready for it, pitches his inning and then goes.”
Bill Koch writes for the Providence Journal of GateHouse Media.