Boston Red Sox

By Tony Massarotti, 98.5 The Sports Hub

What Chris Sale did on Sunday is precisely what an ace should do, right down to the very last detail. In the finale and decisive game of a three-game series against a division leader, Sale held his ground in a scoreless game into the bottom of the fifth. The opposing starter cracked. Sale dominated. He mixed pitches, saved bullets, commanded the ball flawlessly, and threw strikes. As usual, he worked fast.

If this is the Sale the Red Sox get in October, then this entire regular season will have been a success.

But let’s not go assuming just yet that the Red Sox have found the secret to unlocking potentially their greatest weapon in the final months of the season.

First, the good news: despite ranking a mediocre 22nd among the 43 qualifying American League pitchers in run support according to ESPN

American League run support leaders from ESPN.com. (Photo credit: ESPN)

(Photo credit: ESPN.com)

… Sale is now 7-4 with a 2.56 ERA and a .187 batting average against. His performance on Sunday was one of his very best in a Red Sox uniform – it won them a series – and if you don’t believe the words, then hopefully you will trust your eyes:

All of that said, more than one reporter on Sunday noted that the Red Sox’ season-long plan with Sale appears to be paying dividends, presumably because Sale currently looks as strong as ever. On Sunday, his final pitch registered 100.5 miles per hour and looked as if it had been launched from a slingshot. That was from a man who will never be a candidate for the ESPN body issue – try to imagine those pictures for a moment – which brings us back to Point A.

So far, through 17 starts, Sale has thrown 138 fewer pitches and totaled 11.2 fewer innings than he did a year ago. Given that Sale is precisely halfway through his season, that translates into a commendable savings of roughly 276 pitches and 23.1 innings, essentially the equivalent of three starts.

Now the question that no one wants to consider: is that enough?

A year ago, remember, Sale faded not only in September, but in August, too. He began the month with a dreadful five-inning performance in which he allowed seven runs, but for the sake of argument, let’s leave that out – it may have been nothing more than a bad start. (His next two starts were excellent.) But starting on Aug. 19, Sale never again had two consecutive good starts, suggesting he couldn’t bounce back from outing to outing as he did during the regular season.

Thanks to Baseball-Reference.com, we can see this pattern (highlighted in yellow) in numerical form:

(Photo credit: Baseball-Reference.com)

Over those final weeks – a stretch covering eight starts – Sale went 3-4 with a 4.30 ERA and basically averaged 5.3 innings per start. Is that horrendous? No. It’s average. But the point is that the Red Sox need Sale to pitch like Chris Sale, not like Eduardo Rodriguez.

In the framework of a competitive regular season – and we all know the Red Sox would prefer to win the division this year in this nip-and-tuck struggle with the New York Yankees – it would be impossible for the Red Sox to shave the equivalent eight starts off Sale’s workload without placing him on the disabled list at some point. (In the late ‘90s and 2000s, if you recall, the Red Sox began doing precisely that with Pedro Martinez.) Yes, they’ve managed him well so far, but they probably need to manage him even better over the next eight weeks or so.

As things stand, Sale has three starts remaining in the first half – Saturday against the Yankees, July 6th at Kansas City and July 11th vs. Texas. After that the Sox hit the All-Star break. They don’t play again until July 20th, which means they could bump Sale back as far as July 24th if they so choose, giving him a whopping 13 days between starts in the middle of the year. (Last year, for comparison’s sake, Sale had nine days between outings.)

Could such a long break derail Sale some, set him back a little?

Sure.

But if you’re the Red Sox, wouldn’t you prefer to pay the price with your spindly ace in late July, rather than September or October?

You can hear Tony Massarotti weekdays from 2-6 p.m. EST on the Felger & Massarotti program. Follow him on Twitter @TonyMassarotti.