Chris Sale's second-half struggles seemed . . . well, if not over, then at least fading when he averaged 93-94 mph in his ALDS start against the Yankees, with a high of 96. The velocity may not have been in the upper 90s, as it was before he went to the sidelines in August with what was described at the time as "mild inflammation" in his left shoulder, but it was higher than it had been and he seemed on an upward trajectory. And just in time, with the defending World Series champion Astros looming in the ALCS.
In Game 1 on Saturday night, though, all those fears returned. Sale struggled with his command, lasting only four innings, with an average fastball velocity of only 92, and needing 86 laborious pitches to record his 12 outs. The Red Sox trailed 2-0 when he was lifted and, though they tied it in the fifth, they went on to a 7-2 loss.
"It's just one of those things that happen," Sale said. "Sometimes you get out there and you're just battling yourself. That was definitely the case."
It certainly was in the second inning. After recording two quick outs, Sale loaded the bases with two walks and a hit batter to the Astros' 7-8-9 hitters. George Springer made him pay by ripping a two-run single under the glove of third baseman Eduardo Nunez, who slipped as he stretched for the ball.
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It was actually the only hit allowed by Sale, but he walked four to go with the hit batter.
"Anytime you get two quick outs then you load up the bases and give them two runs, that's not what you're looking for this time of year," Sale said. "I just went out there and lost it for a little bit. I felt like I was battling myself for a little bit. I was trying to limit the damage and get out there as quick as we can."
He began to get to get into a rhythm by the fourth inning, but manager Alex Cora decided to push him and brought in Joe Kelly to start the fifth.
In the other clubhouse, the Astros noticed the difference.
"I don't know if he's down on his pitching ability, but for me, from the left side, it's a lot easier when he's only throwing 92-93 instead of 97," said Josh Reddick. "He's not a comfortable at-bat, he's finding ways to get outs, but anytime he's not at 100 percent you've feel like you've got an advantage over him."