There was always a problem with counting on Chris Sale to save the Red Sox season -- what if he's not ready?
Pitchers returning from Tommy John do not dominate the postseason in Year 1. It just doesn't happen. Even as the Red Sox paced Sale's rehab to ensure he'd only retake the mound when ready, there's just no substitute for exposure to live action, followed by a regular offseason, followed by the real fruits of everyone's collective labor in Year 2.
Let's just zip through the history of elite pitchers and TJ. In John Smoltz's first year back, the Braves were forced to move him to the bullpen, where he became an All-Star closer. Chris Carpenter's return with the Cardinals in 2008 was limited to three starts. Four years later, teammate Adam Wainwright authored two solid playoff starts and one horrible one. Yu Darvish delivered 100 effective innings in 2016 before being bombed by the Blue Jays in the ALDS.
Sale came back with a flourish in August right when the Red Sox needed him. They won his first four starts to halt a slide that appeared to be dropping them right out of the playoffs. But Sale's last two starts were among his worst, his stuff regressing, his arsenal shrinking, and now we're left to wonder what the Red Sox can reasonably expect out of him in Friday's pivotal Game 2 of the American League Division Series vs. the Rays.
It almost certainly won't be vintage Chris Sale.
The Red Sox lost Game 1 on Thursday to overpowering rookie Shane McClanahan, and they'll be tasked with beating another one in Shane Baz on Friday. Sale is coming off his worst start of the season in the must-win finale vs. the Nationals, when he lasted only 2.1 innings and helped put the Red Sox in a 5-1 hole that they extricated themselves from in time to secure a 7-5 victory and the first AL wild card.
"That was big," Sale said. "What I saw in that game was a lot of momentum, a lot of energy shift, and guys just being dogs, man. I mean, that was -- I did absolutely nothing to help our team win. I actually put us in a horrendous spot in that game, and our guys could have taken that one of two ways. Being down late in the game, coming back, rallying back, that was huge. I was obviously very appreciative of that."
The Red Sox need Sale to be at his best against a team that owned him on Sept. 6 in Fenway Park, Tampa's infamous Labor Day comeback, when the Red Sox staked Sale to a 7-1 lead, but watched him get knocked out in the fourth after allowing 10 hits and five runs (1 earned). The Rays eventually rallied to win 11-10.
That start, Sale's last before spending 11 days on the COVID IL, started to reveal some chinks in the armor that only became more pronounced down the stretch. He returned to beat the Orioles, but uncharacteristically recorded only one strikeout. After a solid win over the Mets, he blew a 2-0 lead vs. the Orioles in a game the Red Sox absolutely needed to have, taking the loss after serving up a two-run homer to Ryan Mountcastle in the sixth.
Then came the season finale, when he walked three in just 2.1 innings, getting the quick hook from manager Alex Cora. And that brings us to Friday and Sale's tiny margin for error.
"Not too many guys can come out of Tommy John surgery and you throw him in the middle of a pennant race, and do the things that he has done," Cora said. "He has given us a chance to win."
One issue for Sale is the lack of his changeup, a signature pitch that simply hasn't been there and that he'll need against a heavily right-handed Rays lineup that has pounded left-handers at home (though Sale limited them to two runs over six innings in a 3-2 win on Sept. 1).
"I think the biggest flaw in that is the consistency," Sale said. "If I throw 10 of them, four of them are really good. Two of them are, eh, and the other ones are batting practice. So I just have to find a way to get more consistent with that pitch."
Without his changeup, Sale is basically a left-handed version of Tanner Houck -- all fastball-slider, with everything breaking in on right-handed hitters. That won't be good enough against a Rays lineup that finished second in the AL in runs and blasted a pair of homers in Game 1.
The Red Sox need the old Chris Sale, but more it's more likely we really see him until 2022. The competitor is still there, but the stuff just isn't.
"I had a lot of time off, and with that comes a little bit of hiccups and things like that, but with who I have in my corner, obviously, the drive that I have myself, it's just relentless," Sale said. "It's every day. Every single day I come here to get better, and every single day I have literally a team of people helping me get better. I've been able to appreciate this process because of knowing that, A, I'm not alone, and B, we're moving in the right direction. So we just keep swinging the ax and whenever we're done, we're done."