By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Heading into this American League Championship Series, there was quite a bit of chatter and discussion about a starting pitcher who’d be taking the mound at Fenway Park over the weekend. There was a healthy amount of doubt, and some early second-guessing about whether it was a wise decision for Alex Cora to send him out there at all.
But that talk was all about David Price. None of it was about Chris Sale. Perhaps, though, it should have been.
The Sox’ ace ascended the mound on Saturday night in a raucous Fenway Park, in front of a crowd that, despite the frigid temperatures, was charged up to introduce Sale to the defending champs on one of the game’s grandest stages. But Sale just did not rise to the occasion.
Sale’s final line showed that he allowed two earned runs over four innings, which in and of itself was not particularly catastrophic. But with four walks and a hit by pitch, Sale was never in control — not of his arsenal, and not of the game.
Much of his woes were of his own doing, too. He recorded two quick outs to start the second inning and appeared to be in line for a quick inning. Sale issued a two-out walk to Carlos Correa, missing badly outside on consecutive sliders to send the shortstop to first base. Sale then tried to go up and in with a 2-2 fastball to Martin Maldonado, but hit the catcher in his right hand.
In a jam, Sale had a chance to get out of it. Instead, he walked the No. 9 hitter on just five pitches.
That set up a bases-loaded opportunity for George Springer, who batted .429 with a 1.500 OPS in the ALDS vs. Cleveland. He fell behind 0-2 but worked the count full, eventually getting a middle-middle fastball on a 3-2 count. Springer clobbered it, sending a hot-shot ground ball 102 miles per hour to third base. Eduardo Nunez tried to get a glove on it but could not, allowing two Houston runners to cross the plate.
Sale faltered again, walking Alex Bregman to start the third before falling behind Yuli Gurriel. That prompted manager Alex Cora to get Joe Kelly warming in the bullpen, a move that showed just how much doubt had crept its way into the Boston dugout regarding the ace.
Sale ended up getting out of that third inning and then emphatically retiring the Astros in order in the fourth, capped off by consecutive strikeouts. But, having thrown 86 pitches (and just 50 for strikes), the night was over for Sale much earlier than most anticipated.
It didn’t help matters that Justin Verlander, who was Sale’s counterpart on this night, looked like every bit the ace he’s expected to be. Though he had control struggles of his own while allowing two runs in the fifth inning, he managed to make it through six innings having allowed just those two runs.
Sale’s rough night was only one part of the equation, though. The Boston bats collectively went 3-for-30. Andrew Benintendi and Brock Holt struck out three times apiece. Eduardo Nunez committed a bad error at third base, and he had a chance to at least get some leather on the two-run single by Springer. Brandon Workman entered a 3-2 game in the ninth and exited a 7-2 game with one out in the ninth.
All together, Red Sox pitchers walked 10 Astros and hit three more with pitches.
Offensively, Boston managed just three hits and went 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position. They scored one run on a bases-loaded walk, and the other scored on a wild pitch.
Though Joe Kelly was battling some erratic umpiring as well as poor defense from Nunez, he gave up what proved to be the game-winning run on a single by Carlos Correa.
Manager Alex Cora got himself ejected for arguing balls and strikes.
There wasn’t much to feel great about when the final out was recorded early Sunday morning. And as a result, there’s going to be a whole lot of tension in that ballpark on Sunday night.
For that, the Sox will be begging for an ace-like performance out of their highest-paid pitcher. But if David Price follows Sale’s lead, the Red Sox could find themselves in some real trouble before this series even heads to Houston.