Jackie Bradley may have taken our breath away on Wednesday night, but Chris Sale gave us a reason to exhale.
If the 2019 Red Sox season hinges on any one player, it's not defending MVP Mookie Betts, slugging DH J.D. Martinez, or World Series hero David Price. It's not Bradley, either, although his robbery of Trey Mancini belongs somewhere high on his personal list of great catches.
It's Sale, the beanpole left-hander who tends to contend for Cy Young Awards before wilting in the August heat. In a typical season, Sale is probably 5-1 with a low two-something ERA about now, but this hasn't been a normal season.
The Red Sox lost Sale's first six starts, and he wasn't even competitive in half of them. He began play on Wednesday with a 5.25 ERA and a league-leading five losses. But he had also shown signs of turning the corner in his previous two outings, a seven-inning, eight-strikeout loss to the Rays, and a six-inning, 10-strikeout win over the White Sox.
He put it all together against the Orioles on Wednesday by demonstrating that there is life without his 100-mph fastball, because diminished velocity needn't spell the end of his dominance.
Sale routinely destroys the Orioles. The last time he faced them, he struck out 12 in five innings before basically shutting it down until the postseason. He was even better on Wednesday, taking a no-hitter into the sixth before finishing with eight shutout innings and a season-high 14 strikeouts in a 2-1 victory.
"Amazing. Amazing," manager Alex Cora told reporters in Baltimore. "For everybody that was worried about velocity and all that, well, he went eight and he had a good slider. He located his fastball. In this business, you've got to be patient. We've been patient."
Included in Sale's masterful performance was an immaculate seventh as he struck out the side on nine pitches. His fastball sat at 92-93, but he reached 96, including in the eighth inning to strike out Jonathan Villar. He punctuated his performance with three straight 94 mph heaters to whiff Joey Rickard.
"I leaned on that bullpen way more than I wanted to early on in the year," Sale told reporters. "It obviously was really ugly. You guys saw it. Over my last few, I wanted to get deeper into games and save those guys."
All we've wanted out of Sale is a reason to hope his start was simply an aberration, and he provided the blueprint on how he'll be able to maintain his dominance even if he never throws 99 again.
Sale worked his fastball inside to right-handers, whom he kept off-balance with either backdoor or back-foot sliders. And when he needed to elevate a fastball after a series of sliders or changeups, 93 mph was plenty hard enough just above the zone.
"Over my last few stars, my fastball command has really helped me out a lot," Sale told reporters. "I think that was kind of my problem before along, with some other issues. Fastball command has been there."
After glowering through the first month while trying to escape the worst stretch of his career, Sale looked much more like himself in the dugout as he accepted congratulations from his teammates, and then in a postgame interview that featured his first smiles of the year. It was yet another sign that the Red Sox are finally ready to start defending their 2018 title, albeit after spotting the rest of the league a six-week head start. The victory pulled them back to .500 at 19-19 for the first time since they were 1-1 in Seattle to open the season.
"We don't want to be playing .500 right now, but we're playing .500 right now," Cora told reporters. "I don't want to say the season starts Friday, but, the season starts Friday."
Nice to know that Sale will be joining them for the ride. April already feels like a distant memory as the Red Sox and their ace focus on a suddenly promising future.
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