BOSTON - Blue Jays catcher Danny Jansen had never faced Red Sox left-hander Chris Sale before the home opener Tuesday at Fenway Park, so naturally he turned to video.
Including playoffs, Sale has made nearly 300 lifetime appearances, but Jansen was only interested in two of them: his opening starts of 2019. Someone facing the guy throwing 91 or 92 mph wouldn't necessarily scout the vintage Sale blowing people away with triple-digit heat.
"There's no point, right now," Jansen said matter-of-factly, and if that quote sounds disrespectful, it most assuredly wasn't. "Just watching what he's doing now, seeing what he's going within the present moment.
"I never had a chance to face him last year when I was up here. I was just going off what he's been throwing lately. He's 88-92. Still has a good changeup, still has that slider that's effective. I was going up there trying to see a fastball kind of middle and just react to everything else."
Sale's velocity continued riding the rollercoaster in the 7-5 loss, and so did his results. He came out in the first inning sitting at 92-94 mph and retired the first seven he faced. But just when his outing seemed promising, the Blue Jays struck for a pair of runs in the third before Sale's command went haywire in the fourth and his velocity dipped back into the 89-90 mph range.
The Blue Jays didn't exactly tattoo him, but they controlled him. His low point came when back-to-back runs scored on a passed ball and steal of home. "I don't know if I've ever pitched like this in my life," Sale acknowledged, and Blue Jays hitters backed up him, even while noting that he can still be effective in a diminished form.
"He battled," said outfielder Billy McKinney, who recorded a pair of singles. "We got the timely hits when we needed. He looked poised pretty much. We just got the better part of him."
McKinney provided a decent window into Sale's current plight. Sale tried working him up and in with fastballs in the third, but an 89 mph two-seamer got neither up enough nor in enough and the left-handed hitter lined it to right. An inning later,
McKinney saw a slider, changeup, and good 94-mph fastball before blooping a slider that caught too much of the plate into center field for another hit.
"He threw a good pitch," McKinney said. "I just got lucky."
Multiple Jays noted the obvious, that Sale's velocity drop made him less intimidating.
"It's a little bit more comfortable," Jansen allowed. "It is. He's one of the best pitchers in the game when he's throwing 99 like his normal self. It was a little bit more comfortable today. I've never faced him in the past, so I didn't really have a baseline to go off of. I was just trying to see his fastball and changeup and adjust to the slider."
Added manager Charlie Montoyo: "Right now, he's not throwing 95. He's throwing 90, 91. That should be a little bit easier to hit."
Blue Jays veteran Justin Smoak didn't play after being scratched with a sore neck, but he watched, and he has faced Sale more than anyone in a Toronto uniform, batting .222 with a home run in 27 at-bats. He's not betting against the left-hander.
"He's nasty," Smoak said. "No matter if he's at his best or not, he still gets out. That's one of the best pitchers in the league. Yeah, when he's throwing 97-98, that's a little different than 93-94. The slider still plays. The changeup still plays."We don't go out there saying, 'He's throwing 89, 90 today, he's going to be easy to hit.' No. he's Chris Sale. He's got nasty stuff. We were able to get some runs off him, and that doesn't happen very often."
Smoak was talking about the old Chris Sale. The new one is building a new library of tape that's now three starts long, and for the first time ever, opposing hitters like what they see.
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