Red Sox

Red Sox

When it comes to Tuesday afternoon's start against the Tigers, you're either with Chris Sale or Alex Cora.

Sign me up for Team Cora.

Let's explain: Last week in New York, Sale lost his fourth straight outing to open the season. This one differed from its predecessors in that Sale routinely hit 97 mph and featured better action on his slider. Command remained an issue, however, and the Yankees teed off for seven mostly loud hits and four runs in five innings, including a homer by Clint Frazier, in an 8-0 victory over the Red Sox.

Afterwards, you could choose from two options. Cora took the long view. Sale threw hard and rediscovered most of his arsenal. We'd be seeing the perennial Cy Young candidate real soon.

"I'm not going to be surprised if his next outing he's right where we need him to be," Cora said after the whitewashing. "Stuff-wise, compare it to the first three -- the velocity was there, the slider was a lot better, he's very close to the quote-unquote real Chris Sale."

Then there was the Sale approach of self-flagellation.

"It sucks!" he said. "I'm not going to sugarcoat it. I just flat-out stink right now. I don't know what it is. When you're going good, it's good. When you're going bad, it's pretty bad. You know, show up tomorrow, put on the shoes and get back after it."

Did he share his manager's confidence in a quick turnaround?

 

"We better (expletive) hope so," he declared.

So which is it? Cora's optimism or Sale's fatalism?

There was simply more to feel good about than bad last Tuesday, no matter the final numbers. The Sale who struggled to throw 89 mph fastballs in Oakland -- thanks to illness, we now know -- had us worried about the health of his shoulder. He finished last year injured and then started this one throwing like Frank Tanana. Not good, especially in light of a five-year, $145 million extension. His transformation from machine-gunner to tactician was at least supposed to wait until the new deal actually kicked in next year.

Sale didn't exhibit those same underlying physical issues on Tuesday, though. He threw 23 fastballs of at least 95 mph and six times topped 97. Per Baseball Savant, he hadn't thrown a single 95-mph fastball all season.

The problem was location and the Yankees unloaded, ripping seven balls with exit velocities of at least 100 mph. Five of them went for hits, including Frazier's homer, which came on a hanging changeup. Sale also hung a slider to Mike Tauchman, who bounced a double into the right field corner.

New York's other five hits came on fastballs. As a means of comparison, Sale allowed an average exit velocity of only 84.7 mph last year, which ranked fifth among starters.

"Need to get results," Sale said on Tuesday. "Doesn't matter how hard you throw or how fancy, you need to throw up zeroes."

While that's true, we need to see Sale's starts in context. Last week's was the first that featured something approximating his healthy arsenal. Given his track record -- six straight top-five finishes in the Cy Young voting, three straight All-Star Game starts -- it's fair to assume that if he continues throwing that hard with that much movement on his slider, he'll look like Chris Sale again sooner than later.

Let's also not underestimate the value of his other attributes, like competitiveness, mental toughness, and tenacity. A  1-0 loss to Oakland showed that he can still record outs while barely breaking 90 mph, because he knows how to pitch.

Cora is betting on it all coming together in his next start. A snarling Sale refuses to make any assumptions, because that's not how he's wired.

The manager is paid to see the big picture, though, and in this case I'm with him -- it may have taken a month, but don't be surprised if the real Chris Sale finally makes his 2019 debut this week.

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