Friday, March 24, 2023

Chris Sale’s return gives Boston much-needed boost in ultra-competitive AL East

On Saturday, Chris Sale finally made his long-awaited 2021 debut for Boston. He struck out eight in five innings and the Red Sox won by 14 runs. 

That happened one day after Kyle Schwarber made his not-as-long awaited 2021 debut for Boston. He walked twice, scored twice and the Red Sox won by seven runs. 

The biggest takeaway from those two games: If the Red Sox have any more All-Stars stashed on their Injured List ready to return, they just might run away with the AL East title. Well, there’s this, too: If they only played the Orioles — the Red Sox swept that three-game series this weekend by a combined score of 30-5 — they’d be a lock to take the division championship. But they only play the Orioles six more times this season, so the Rays/Yankees/Blue Jays still have a shot at the top spot.

The additions were a huge boost for the Red Sox. Schwarber was the biggest acquisition in what was a relatively disappointing trade deadline for Boston fans, who were hoping for multiple reinforcements on the pitching staff. Schwarber had 25 homers for the Nationals before the deal, but he was on the IL with a hamstring issue when the trade happened, which is why his debut didn’t happen until a couple weeks into August. 

Sale, though, hadn’t pitched since 2019 because of an injury that required Tommy John surgery. Safe to say he was thrilled to be back. 

“This game was ripped out of my hands,” Sale told reporters, as reported by the Boston Herald. “I had a hole in my chest for two years and I’ll be completely honest with you, I took days for granted. I’ve been a big leaguer for 11 years now and I took moments, I took days, I took weeks for granted. Through all of this, I’ve had a huge perspective change.

“I’ll tell you one thing, I’m not wasting another damn day in my big league career. That’s just not going to happen.”

RELATED: Tyler Gilbert makes MLB history with no-hitter in first start

Here’s why the return of Sale is so important: Boston’s starting pitchers have been healthy all season, but that’s not necessarily been a good thing.

Garrett Richards made 22 starts, with a 5.22 ERA and hadn’t finished six complete innings since June 1. Eduardo Rodriguez has 23 starts and a 4.97 ERA, though his 3.34 FIP says he’s probably been pitching better than his results. Martin Perez made 22 starts, with a 4.77 ERA before he was dropped from the rotation. 

And, sure, Sale’s been gone a long time but he’s still Chris Freaking Sale. He finished in the top six of the AL Cy Young voting every year from 2012 to 2018, with a 2.91 ERA/2.84 FIP in that stretch, with a 10.9 K/9 and 5.59 K/BB. Sale struck out eight in his debut, with the two runs coming on solo homers by the Orioles. 

“He was amazing. He was great,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “Today was a special day for this organization, what he went through, him grinding through the the whole process and not feeling good about himself because he wasn’t able to contribute for the first time in his career.”

The AL East has turned into the most competitive division in baseball, with four teams all at least nine games over .500. Here are the standings heading into Monday’s games …

Team Record GB
Rays 71-47
Red Sox 69-51 3
Yankees 65-52 5.5
Blue Jays 63-54 7.5

At least one of those teams will be left on the outside looking in when October arrives. It’s possible three of the four could make it, and it’s also possible that only the division champ will qualify for the postseason (though far from likely because it would require the Mariners catching fire). 

At the moment, the Red Sox are tied with the A’s atop the wild-card standings — meaning they’d both be in if the season ended today — but the Yankees are only 2 1/2 back and the Blue Jays are a couple back of the Yankees (the Mariners are a game back of the Jays). And, remember, the Yankees and Blue Jays both added significant reinforcements at the trade deadline.

The Red Sox had spent most of the season with the AL East lead — they had a 4 1/2-game lead in early July, remember — but were looking at the distinct possibility of falling out of the postseason entirely. Still, the Sox were careful not to rush Sale back to the bigs after such a long layoff. 

The lefty made a five-star tour of Boston’s minor-league system. He made his first start with the club’s rookie-league team on July 15, throwing three shutout innings. Five days later, he threw 3 2/3 hitless, scoreless innings for Double-A Portland, and followed that up with a 64-pitch effort for Portland on July 25, striking out nine but allowing a pair of runs. 

He made two Triple-A starts, too, striking out 15 in 9 2/3 innings. He was on the mound for this spectacular catch by Worchester teammate Tate Matheny.

His minor-league totals: 5 starts, 20 innings, 35 strikeouts, 1.35 ERA over 24 calendar days. 

His return to the majors was just about everything the Sox could have hoped for.

“I think those moments, we don’t take for granted,” Cora said. “We always talk about, we’re family, and we get happy for each other, and we suffer for each other. We smile and we cry together throughout the journey. Today, it was fun. It was great. It was refreshing. I will never forget that moment. When we got back to the clubhouse, it was something that, it’s very special.”

Most importantly, he finished the start healthy and ready to go. The impact of Sale’s return — on the field and in the clubhouse — is something the Sox very much needed. 


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