By Tony Massarotti, 98.5 The Sports Hub
Chris Sale hasn’t really made consecutive starts since July 22 and 27, basically three months ago, the equivalent of a half-season. Now he gets the ball tonight, in Game 1 of the World Series, and if the Red Sox are smart they will assume he won’t get it again.
And so here we go again, Red Sox followers: another round of the playoffs, another October, another wounded ace. The 2004 Red Sox had Curt Schilling and the tendon sheath in his damaged right ankle. The 2013 Sox have Chris Sale, his navel ring, and his balky right shoulder. The last of those is what should concern you the most now and going forward, no matter how much Sale manipulates his words and skirts the issue.
“In the past two months, have you been a hundred percent or anywhere near there?,” a reporter asked Sale yesterday in traditional day-before press conferences at Fenway Park.
“If I’m standing on the mound,” Sale replied, “I’m a hundred percent.”
And so there you go. Apparently, Sale views pitching as a pass-fail exam. You either are or you aren’t. There is no in-between. And so what the Red Sox get from here is anybody’s guess, because we all know that Sale just isn’t right.
So just how bad is it? Hell if we know, because we all understand that athletes will go to extremes to play in the biggest games at the most important time of the year, their health be damned. Years ago, with a shoulder that had been rebuilt and was effectively stapled together, former Red Sox right-hander Bret Saberhagen took the mound for a playoff game against the Cleveland Indians. Saberhagen later admitted that he took too much pain medication before the outing, the dosage putting him in such a fog that standing on the mound was an out-of-body experience.
What happens next to Sale? Neither he nor the Red Sox seem to know – or at least they are not saying – which makes this October all the more important. Sale’s contract is up after next season. He will be 30 next spring. And nobody really wants to invest in a linguine-thin left-hander with a slingshot delivery and a questionable shoulder, especially a year before free agency.
But then, that’s what makes October unique in baseball. The marathon gives way to the sprint. You pitch or you don’t. There is no in-between. Caution is tossed to the wind.
Said Sale: “That’s what we sign up for. This is what we prepare for all year, a chance to win a championship and that’s where we’re at right now.”
And so, in the shortest term – the next week – here is the question: what can the Red Sox reasonably expect? This summer, according to BrooksBaseball.net, Sale’s four-seam fastball averaged around 97 mph. In his one August start – the one that sent him back to the disabled list for a second time – he averaged out at 98.2. He has since spent September and October hovering at an average of roughly 93 mph, which probably leaves him with enough to win but doesn’t leave him enough to dominate.
Here is Sale’s average fastball velocity this season:
In the end, here is the point: whatever Sale is able to give the Red Sox tonight, in Game 1, might be all that he can give them in this World Series. The Red Sox would be smart to think of it this way. The Red Sox babied Sale in September, then pushed him a little in the division series. After a one-inning outing against the New York Yankees in decisive Game 4, he came back and started Game 1 of the AL Championship Series against the Houston Astros looking weaker and more out-of-sync than he has ever looked in a Red Sox uniform.
Yesterday, at Fenway, Sale was asked how many innings he might be able to last in Game 1. His answer? “As many as we need.” And what the Red Sox need, of course, is as many as Sale can give them because, with him especially now, there is no guarantee that he will bounce back, no guarantee that he will pitch well, no guarantee that he can give them any more going forward.
So Sale goes tonight. Then we wait and see where the Red Sox are, how Sale feels, how great the urgency. And we hope that the next ring Sale talks about putting on his body is one that is big and gaudy, and goes on his finger.