It’s been an up-and-down year for Chris Sale, and while recent outings have ranged from disappointing to embarrassing, Thursday saw the ace back to his very best.
Sale was dominant in a 3-0 Red Sox win over the Angels, going eight shutout innings and giving up just two hits and striking out 13 without a walk in one of his best starts of the season.
"Just getting back to what I was doing to make myself successful before all this," Sale said of an excellent night. "Spent a lot of time this week looking at some things, (pitching coach Brian Bannister) kind of broke it down for me yesterday, just zones and tunnels and where all my damage is coming from, and kind of getting back to doing some things with my arm path that help my pitches."
The big lefty had all his pitches working, with his fastball location and velocity returning to its best, his slider tying batters in knots and his overall command — 67 of his 99 pitches were strikes — allowing him to stay ahead in counts.
Sale found a bit of trouble early when Rafael Devers let Shohei Ohtani’s dribbler roll down the third base line — Devers thought it would roll foul, but it stayed fair — for a two-out double, but he promptly froze Justin Upton with a 1-2 to escape the first.
From there, Sale cruised, retiring 16 consecutive Angels before Mike Trout — twice a Sale strikeout victim on Thursday — singled to lead off the seventh.
Sale said postgame that his confidence in these sorts of starts comes from "results, any time you get results it's satisfying, especially when you see what you've been doing that has made you unsuccessful and you look at what has made you successful and you trash one and pick up the other. Just the way it felt, the way it all felt, the visual satisfaction of what I saw, what they were showing me, and then to be able to go out and do out, you just try to build off of that and keep it going."
The heart of the order — Trout, Ohtani and Upton — had the only two hits on the day, going 2-for-9, but combined to strike out six times, with a hat trick of punchouts for Upton. Third baseman David Fletcher was the only Angel to avoid the hammer, going 0-for-3 with two groundouts and a lineout.
After Trout singled to open the seventh, Sale proved he still has the extra gear in his most impressive inning of the night, dialing his fastball up on three separate occasions to strike out three straight and strand Trout at first.
After Ohtani worked the count full, Sale delivered a 3-2 fastball that he could only stare at, hitting 96.1 mph on the gun for the southpaw’s fastest pitch of the night to that point. With two strikes on the next batter, Sale dialed up the fastball again, reaching back and firing it past a helpless Upton at 96.7 mph, again his fastest of the night. Finally, Albert Pujols fell victim to the heater, flailing at a 98.4 mph fastball to end the inning, as Sale’s dominance was on full display.
Sale came back for the eighth and got Kole Calhoun fishing at a slider, got Luis Renfigo to line out to right and fired one more fastball at 97 mph past Wilfredo Tovar for his final strikeout of the night, exiting to a standing ovation at Fenway. Homers from Sam Travis and Sandy Leon, along with a shutdown ninth from Brandon Workman, were enough for a 3-0 Red Sox win.
'There was a lot of work in between starts," said manager Alex Cora. "It was a team effort on the field, team effort, behind closed doors. It's a lot of work, a lot of video and the group did an outstanding job trying to figure stuff out. Sometimes I don't know what it's all about. But you can see the tempo was good, the delivery was clean, the mix of the pitches was outstanding, and man when he gets rolling he gets rolling. You saw the fastball, it played today, the changeup was good, the slider was amazing, so good win for everybody.
Thursday was vintage Sale through-and-through; his command was on, his fastball was hitting the upper 90s and his slider was lethal, as he moved to 6-11 on the year. The Red Sox remain 15.5 games out of first place in the division and 5.5 games out of the Wild Card, but it's a positive sign for the team to see their ace find his best stuff again.
"You never want to say that you figured it out, but it's a step in the right direction, and I hope to keep doing what I'm doing," Sale said. "Obviously we have an uphill battle, but we still think we've got a shot and we're all still fighting in here."