Chris Sale's not the reason the Red Sox choked away a must-win game against the Orioles on Tuesday, but he's the voice of frustration over it.
Leave it to Sale to speak for fans everywhere after the Red Sox dropped a 4-2 snoozefest and guaranteed they won't sweep the worst team in the American League with a wild card berth on the line.
"That (bleeping) sucked," Sale said. "There's no question. We've got to win these games. That's it. Any game we lose, it (bleeping) sucks. Any game we win, we're one step closer."
At no point prior to this week would I have characterized the team's fall from first place as a choke. It was simply water seeking its level. That still left ample opportunity for the Red Sox to remain afloat, and until this weekend vs. the Yankees, they never seemed in serious danger of drowning.
They're officially drifting in waters off the coast of Chokeville, however, after a fourth straight defeat. Whether you thought they'd finish first or last, the opportunity in front of them over the final five games of the season is readily apparent: take care of business against two of the worst teams in baseball and at the very least pack for Yankee Stadium next Tuesday in the AL wild card.
After being swept by the Yankees at home over the weekend, however, the Red Sox are playing like a team that's spooked by the sound of the executioner sharpening his blade. Missing the playoffs with the schedule so clearly breaking their way may not remotely rival 1978 or 2011 for sheer devastation, but it wouldn't be a proud moment in franchise history, either.
Tuesday's offensive performance would've been comical if it wasn't so poorly timed. Facing the worst pitching staff in the American League, the Red Sox hacked like celebrity softball players guaranteed only one pitch. They managed just three hits and were dispatched in a tidy 2:37, making it their shortest nine-inning game of the year.
It's not because they were efficient. They made two errors and blew a 2-0 lead in the sixth, in part because Sale hung a changeup to Ryan Mountcastle for a two-run homer. With the Yankees stomping the Blue Jays in Toronto, the Red Sox now trail New York by two games in the wild card race, a game ahead of the Jays and only a half game ahead of the surging Mariners.
Lose again on Wednesday, and this is what a collapse looks like.
"We've been getting drug through mud the last four days, or four games anyway," Sale said. "We've got to find something, man. These games, they're not making any more of them, and we're getting toward the end. We know where we're at. We know what we're up against. It's not even really us versus anybody. It's us versus us. We've got to win games, and the more we can get back to that, the better off we're going to be."
The mental toughness and resiliency they exhibited early in the season feels like a relic of a distant past. They were tight all over the field on Tuesday, with errors charged to Rafael Devers and Alex Verdugo, and the go-ahead run scoring on a hit that should've been an error after Devers let a groundball go right through him in the sixth.
Desperately needing a spark in the eighth, they were instead retired on four pitches. They never put more than one runner on base in any inning. They looked like a team not only feeling the pressure, but suffocating under it.
"Offensively we didn't do much," manager Alex Cora said. "There were a lot of empty at-bats. We didn't put pressure on them. We are an offensive team. We're a lot better than what we showed today. A lot of quick outs. There were only a few at-bats that we grinded out and got deep into counts."
They're now left to regroup, and fast. The Jays are eminently capable of getting hot, as they proved by winning 16 of 20 earlier this month. The Mariners, to their credit, haven't gone anywhere. The Red Sox face the possibility of blowing both a wild card lead and a playoff berth in the final week-plus of the season.
That's called a bleeping choke.