SEATTLE – When Dave Dombrowski was negotiating with the Chicago White Sox last December and deciding that, yes, he would be willing to part with his organization’s two best prospects to obtain Chris Sale, he very likely had days like Wednesday in mind.
The Red Sox carried a four-game losing streak, their longest of the season, into the road trip finale at Safeco Field. The previous night (morning, actually), they had lost in excruciating fashion, blowing a one-run lead in the bottom of the 13th thanks to a wild pitch and an infield single.
But Sale put a happy ending on another otherwise unsatisfactory trip. Rather than suffer yet one more setback, followed by a cross-country flight during which the Red Sox could stew in their collective disappointment, the lefty threw himself in front of the team’s runaway road trip and ensured they went home happy.
“I don’t know if you gear up (to stop a losing streak),’’ said Sale after he tossed seven shutout innings in the Red Sox 4-0 victory over the Mariners. “But you definitely want to shorten those up as much as you can. Heading into an off-day and a long flight home, it’s nice to get this one.’’
That Sale could get the Sox through seven innings, too, was a plus, since the Boston bullpen was wrung out after eight innings Tuesday night.
“You definitely have that in the back of your mind,’’ he said of the relievers’ workload. “But you don’t want to (dwell) too much on it. You just go out there and pitch your game.’’
He did, masterfully. Just once, the Mariners manage to put two base runners on in the same inning. That came in the second, when a backdoor slider clipped the foot of Guillermo Heredia and Mitch Haniger worked the only walk that Sale allowed. But Sale retired Carlos Ruiz on an inning-ending groundout.
After that, he allowed just three more Mariners to reach. For the rest of the afternoon, he spotted his fastball with precision and unleashed his whip-like slider with seeming ease.
“We’re watching one of the better years ever pitched by a major league pitcher in the American League,’’ marveled John Farrell.
Sale’s numbers are awe-inducing: with his 11 strikeouts, he’s fanned 10 or more hitters 14 times in 21 starts this season, the most by anyone in a full season since Randy Johnson had 15 in 2002. He’s gone seven innings or more in two-thirds of his starts. And he seems a mortal lock to reach the 300-strikeout plateau for the season.
And here’s the scary part for opponents: there’s evidence that he’s getting better as the season progresses. In July, he has a 1.04 ERA, and since the All-Star break, he hasn’t allowed a run in over 20.2 innings with 33 strikeouts.
Sale started for the American League in the All-Star Game, but barely broke a sweat. Those were the only two innings he threw in the span of nine days – between his last start of the first half and his first start of the second half – and the respite appeared to serve him well.
Now, he’s invigorated and intent on finding another gear.
“You want to be better in the second half,’’ Sale said. “That’s the point. This is not a game played on half a year; it’s played on a full year. I think all the games count the same, but down the stretch, in the second half, is big for everybody.’’
Approximately two-thirds of the season is done, but Sale is just getting started. It may be difficult imagining him being better in August and September than he was in April, May, June and July, but if anyone’s capable of such an uptick, it would be Sale.
For the finishing sprint, Sale has saved an extra kick for himself. Hitters, beware.
But first, there was the matter of washing away the aftertaste of Wednesday morning’s loss, and turning the Red Sox around as they got ready to head east.
“A little positive momentum going into the off-day,’’ said Sale as matter-of-factly as he overpower the Seattle lineup. “Take a deep breath (Thursday) and then come back Friday, ready to rock.’’