BOSTON -- No sooner had the media entered the Red Sox clubhouse at the absurdly early time of 9:45 p.m. than Chris Sale strode to his place among the postgame cameras.
He wasn't wasting one second, on the field or off.
Anyone looking for a glimmer of hope that the Red Sox can make a go of it for the final eight weeks of the season spotted that tiniest little sliver of light on Thursday night.
There's no use in declaring Sale "back," because even manager Alex Cora acknowledged we'll need to see it again. "We need to work towards the next one," he said. But for one night, anyway, Sale looked *exactly* like the Sale we've missed for most of the season.
You want short work? He carved up the Angels like the world's most dexterous sushi chef, cruising through eight shutout innings in barely two hours to lead the Red Sox to a 3-0 victory that allowed everyone to exhale.
You want dominance? Try two hits and 13 strikeouts on 99 pitches. He gained strength as the game progressed, striking out Albert Pujols to end the seventh with his hardest pitch of the season, a 98.4 mph elevated fastball that left the future Hall of Famer shaking his head.
You want hope? It's a little soon for that. But look at it this way: there's only one way the Red Sox reach the postseason, let alone make a peep there, and it's if Sale rediscovers his mojo and then sustains it.
"Anytime you get results, it's satisfying, especially when you see what you've been doing that made you unsuccessful and you look at what has made you successful and you kind of trash the one and pick up the other," Sale said. "And just the way it all felt. The visual satisfaction from what I saw, what they were showing me, and then to be able to go out and do it, you just try to build off of that and keep it going."
Sale credited a Wednesday session with assistant pitching coach Brian Bannister, who noted "zones and tunnels" where Sale was absorbing particular damage. On Thursday, he not only had his fastball working up in the zone, he also featured his slider on both sides of the plate and mixed in an effective changeup.
Add it all together, and it equaled his best outing since a three-hit shutout of the Royals on June 3. He followed that game with a tough-luck no-decision against the Rangers (7 IP, 0 ER), but pretty shortly thereafter the wheels fell off again.
Both Sale and the Red Sox are approaching this latest start with appropriate restraint. He looked great, but it won't mean anything if he starts allowing multiple home runs a start again.
"You never want to say you figured it out, but it's a step in the right direction," Sale said. "I hope to be able to keep doing what I'm doing, because obviously we've got an uphill battle, but we still think we've got a shot, and we're all still fighting in here."
The timing is important, because the Red Sox rotation is once again facing a manpower shortage after left-hander David Price was placed on the injured list with a wrist cyst on Thursday. Price's absence makes Sale more important than ever, because he's the only pitcher on the roster capable of carrying the staff.
"He's obviously a big part of our team, a big part of our rotation," Sale said of Price. "He's one of the few guys in our rotation that's been very consistent the whole year. Given where we're at, where we need to go, and what we need to do to get there -- it doesn't really change a whole lot, but we've got to win some games."
When Sale is carving up opponents in two hours and 16 minutes, it makes you wish this could've been here all year.
"Everybody is going to be asking if he can do it again in the next one," Cora said. "This is obvious. There is a lot of question marks for the right reasons, obviously. But at least for today he looked great. The delivery was great. The velocity was up. The shape of the pitches was amazing. I'm proud of him but I'm proud of the group. Everybody contributed to this and they deserve a good night like this."
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.