Chris Sale doesn't just talk a good game, he walks it.
But let's not discount the talking part, because however inspiring his words sound in press conferences, just imagine what his exhortations mean to teammates behind closed doors.
On Wednesday, Sale delivered one of the signature starts of the season, a 3-2 victory over the Rays with the Red Sox rocked by COVID and their grip on the playoffs as tenuous as Gandalf clinging to the bridge at Khazad-dum.
He wasn't overpowering, striking out only three in six innings, but he induced three double plays, navigating his highest-stress start of the season like the ace we all know him to be.
After the game, he weighed in on a host of subjects, his answers illustrating why he's so respected in the clubhouse and how he has been able, immediately, to reassert himself as a leader despite two years and one day on the sidelines.
"That was big," Sale said. "There's no doubt we've had some gut punches over the last week, week and a half. Even before then. To know that we still got some fight left in us, we've got some kick. No one in here has given up. Our attitude and effort is staying the same no matter who's in this clubhouse or who's not, and that's the most important thing. We're still in a position that most other guys would love to be in, and we know that, and we've got to keep rolling with it."
He's referring to playoff seeding. The win coupled with an A's loss moved the Red Sox two games ahead of Oakland in the race for the second wild card, just two games behind the Yankees for the first.
The idea of the Red Sox surviving their staggering bout with COVID -- Yairo Munoz became the latest casualty before Wednesday's game, bringing to eight the number of players on the sidelines -- remains mostly fanciful. But as long as Sale takes the hill every five or so days, the Red Sox believe they have a chance.
"We've been kicked. We've been punched," he said. "To see us fight like that and win a game the way we just won that game, that's a momentum boost."
Sale touched on a number of other topics as well, each illustrating his knack for recognizing and boosting his teammates without bragging about himself.
- He saluted shortstop Jonathan Arauz and second baseman Jack Lopez, the latter making his big league debut after parts of nine years in the minors, for turning those three double plays. In particular, he credited Lopez for a heads-up tag and throw to end the fourth with runners on the corners.
"It was awesome, man," Sale said. "That's everything. I didn't have but a couple of strikeouts tonight, so that means I was really relying and leaning on my defense. Those guys up the middle, Jack and Ruze, they made some really heads-up plays. With Lopez, it was his major league debut tonight, and he made the most heads-up play that save our butt, saved our rears. So hats off to them and everybody, really. We were scratching and clawing. This was by no means an easy win."
- Sale gushed over reliever Garrett Whitlock, who delivered his typical outing with two scoreless innings, dropping his ERA to 1.52 and burnishing his credentials for awards consideration.
"I mean, he's been one of the best relievers in baseball," Sale said. "You're talking about a guy that, it's pretty unbelievable, honestly. His story. His path to the big leagues. Having Tommy John (surgery). Not pitching past Double-A. Now, he's got to be a lock for Rookie of the Year. The guy's been absolutely nails for us. Being able to go out there and throw one inning, two innings, two plus, and do what he's done, it's alleviated a lot of pressure off a lot of other guys. I mean, he's like auto-correct. As soon as he has a bad one, it's right on to the next one."
- Sale didn't reserve praise for his own team. He gave an insightful answer when asked about Rays rookie Wander Franco, who took a high fastball the other way for a two-run homer.
"Those are the ones you don't lose sleep over, honestly," Sale said. "That's not a home run pitch. He's not supposed to hit that ball out. That was me vs. him and he won. That's one of those cliché moments where you tip your cap, but it's true. Not too many guys can get to that. Not many guys can A) get to it and B) hit it out. So that one you just kind of brush it off and go, 'all right, well, he got to that' and you just move forward. It's not like I hung a breaking ball or threw it right down the middle. He earned it. So those are a little bit easier to brush off."
With that, Sale left the podium, his job done for the night. Listening to him talk is enough to make even the most hardened cynic believe the Red Sox still have a chance, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.