Chris Sale threw an immaculate inning on Thursday, but his response to giving up a home run two frames later was hardly angelic.
Red Sox fans had every right to wonder what kind of impact Sale might make down the stretch in his return from Tommy John surgery. No one doubted his will or competitiveness, but two years away is a long time, and improvements aren't always linear.
So it was shocking, in a good way, to see Sale follow a two-run homer by burly Twins third baseman Willians Astudillo with fastballs of 98 and 98 mph en route to the final two outs of the fifth. Sale had a colorful description for those pitches that provided a window into his wiring while helping to explain his place atop the Red Sox rotation.
"That's probably the most pissed I've been on a baseball field in a while," Sale said. "That's just coming out of anger and frustration. I like to call those F-U fastballs, I can't really say the word. But I got pissed, I got going, and today was probably the best my mechanics have been start to finish."
Those pitches had zip, but he actually saved his hardest offering for last, a 98.2 mph fastball that just missed the strike zone against Twins slugger Josh Donaldson before Sale was lifted with one out in the sixth.
Pairing that velocity with irked aggression allows the Red Sox to envision Sale grabbing the ball in a winner-take-all wild card game with the stuff that made him one of the best pitchers in the American League for nearly 10 years.
Three starts into his much-hyped return, Sale is 3-0 with a 2.35 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 15.1 innings. Will the Red Sox take it? You'd better believe it.
"He was good and he showed us that he has something in the tank," said manager Alex Cora. "You hate to see the homer, but then after that, you saw the (velocity) numbers going up. That's a good sign. He was in control. A lot of strikeouts, very effective, the pitch count was low. At one point I was like, 'We don't need too much drama where he's at right now.'
"It felt like after that shutdown inning, three strikeouts on nine pitches, I was like, 'Ugh, this might be one of those where I have to make a decision.' But overall, outstanding, that's what he does. He competes at a high level. That's 15 innings of competitive baseball, that's all he wanted, and we know he's got more."
Sale's immaculate inning came in the third, when he struck out Nick Gordon, Andrelton Simmons, and Rob Refsnyder swinging on nine pitches for the third such perfect inning of his career, tying Sandy Koufax all-time. He made Cora's life a little trickier by carrying a no-hitter into the fifth before Ryan Jeffers singled on a dribbler up the third base line that Sale had no choice but to let roll in the hopes it would go foul.
Astudillo followed with a laser into the left field seats, and then Sale got ornery.
"I really felt like I was staying on top of the baseball, I really kind of found it in the bullpen before the game," Sale said. "And that mixed with a little bit of hate, honestly, and I really just let it eat."
As the Red Sox continue to seek their bearings in the playoff race, they can only hope Sale continues to feast, even if sometimes his language isn't fit for the dinner table.