By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
BOSTON (CBS) — The list of 20-game winners in recent Red Sox history reads like a checklist of iconic pitching performances: Pedro Martinez in 1999, Josh Beckett in 2007, Curt Schilling in 2004, Roger Clemens in 1986.
There was Eck in 1978 and Jim Lonborg dreaming The Impossible Dream back in 1967.
El Tiante submitted three 20-win campaigns during his time in Boston. So did The Rocket. Pedro and Derek Lowe combined for 41 victories in 2002. And, just last season, Rick Porcello rode his 22 wins to the American League Cy Young Award.
With 11 wins in 19 starts this season, Chris Sale has a chance to be Boston’s next 20-game winner. With a career-high of 17 victories pitching for the sub-.500 White Sox, a move to Boston was supposed to afford the lanky lefty the kind of run support that would reward a steady stream of seven-and-eight-inning performances.
Only it hasn’t, really.
While the Sox have scored 5.32 runs per game behind their ace, that number is skewed by the 41 runs they logged across three of his starts. There was a 17-spot against the Twins on May 7, 13 in Chicago around Memorial Day, and 11 in a pasting of the Tigers two starts later.
But they’ve scored two runs or less in seven of his remaining 16 outings. The median across that span: three runs per game.
Call it picking nits; say the 20-win milestone and the numbers on the backs of baseball cards don’t matter anymore. But the team’s general lack of support for Sale is symptomatic of the post-David Ortiz slip that has dropped the Sox from the top offensive unit in the Majors to 12th this year, and thus far prevented them from running away with the division. Boston’s record is a fine 13-6 in games started by Sale, but, given his performance (leading the league in innings pitched, ERA, WHIP and strikeouts), it could be so much better.
It started with Sale’s debut on April 5th against Pittsburgh. The lefty fired seven innings of scoreless ball, yielding just four baserunners and striking out seven, receiving a no-decision for his efforts. His second start was excellent as well: 7.2 innings and just two earned runs at Detroit, but Sale took his first loss of the campaign as Boston managed to plate just one run.
Later in the month, the southpaw blanked Toronto through eight full, allowing just five baserunners, but got another no-decision. The next time out, Boston was shut out as Sale gave up just two earned over eight innings against the Yankees.
In May and June, Sale did pick up a couple of wins he probably didn’t deserve, but the Sox also squandered a solid seven-inning, two-run outing at Oakland and an eight-inning gem where he allowed just five baserunners and a lonely run in a loss to Philadelphia on the road.
And then, this past weekend: an absolutely brilliant eight innings against the Yankees, with Craig Kimbrel uncharacteristically yielding a ninth-inning bomb that tied the game and wiped out Sale’s efforts on a day the Red Sox managed to plate just one runner in 16 innings of baseball.
That’s seven starts, in which Sale allowed a total of seven earned runs. Boston is 2-5 in those games. Those are five missed layups.
If the Red Sox had converted, say, three of those, Sale would be sitting at 14-4 headed into Anaheim on Friday evening and, most importantly, Boston would have substantial breathing room on those pesky Rays in the AL East.
John Farrell has tinkered with the lineup, and while his team is 13-10 in one-run games and 8-2 in extra innings, they’ve often looked lifeless on the evenings where you check the newspaper and say “they should win this one.” Once again, they’re flailing with runners in scoring position, individual hot streaks have been relatively isolated, and you just get the feeling the offense should be better.
Twenty is a nice, round number. A number of pitchers have won a Cy Young Award and fallen well short of the mark. But it would be a crying shame if Chris Sale, pitching like this, doesn’t get to 20 wins this year. That would mean, in retrospect, that the 2017 Red Sox failed to live up to expectations.
Those iconic seasons from Martinez, Beckett, Schilling, Clemens, Eckersley and Lonborg? They all punched a ticket to October baseball. Same for Porcello last year.
With the Yankees making big moves in advance of the deadline, the Red Sox are still trying to find their footing offensively in the American League East. They can start by cashing in on what should be some easy wins behind their ace.
Sean Sylver is a contributor to CBSBostonSports.com who can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can interact with him on Twitter @sylverfox25.