Chris Sale looked dominant Saturday in his Boston Red Sox return, striking out eight Baltimore Orioles batters and walking zero over five innings of two-run ball.
That's pretty impressive considering it was Sale's first major league game in nearly two calendar years after a long rehab from Tommy John surgery.
But it's worth noting that the Red Sox ace feasted on the worst team in the American League: The 38-78 Orioles rank second-to-last in the AL in runs scored and entered Saturday's contest with a nine-game losing streak.
So, we'll finally see how Sale stacks up against quality competition next time out, right? Not quite. Sale's next scheduled start is Friday against the Texas Rangers, who own the AL's second-worst record and are the only AL team that's scored fewer runs than Baltimore.
That's a pretty cushy ramp-up for Sale, who will dodge Boston's series with the rival New York Yankees this week. The 32-year-old could face (somewhat) tougher sledding after Friday, though.
Below is a projection of Sale's remaining starts in the 2021 regular season. Assuming he pitches every fifth day (or every fifth game if off-days are involved), he should make eight more appearances down the stretch.
Sale has a relatively easy slate to close out 2021: Five of his eight projected starts are at home, and only three of those eight starts are against teams with records above .500.
In fairness, those three starts will be tough tests: Sale is set to face two division leaders with top-10 offenses in the Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago White Sox as well as the always-dangerous Yankees in a late-September outing with potential playoff implications.
But that start vs. New York is sandwiched between two more appearances against the hapless Orioles, who presented no problem for Sale on Saturday.
If Sale looks good in his next few starts -- particularly against the Rays and White Sox -- perhaps manager Alex Cora will shuffle the rotation to match his ace up against harder competition, like Tampa on Sept. 6 instead of Cleveland on Sept. 5.
For now, however, the pieces are in place for Sale to enjoy considerable success in his 2021 return.