Should Alex Cora have let Chris Sale go for 20 strikeouts?

Seventeen "K" signs are hung up in the eighth inning for Chris Sale's (not pictured) of the Boston Red Sox career high strikeouts against the Colorado Rockies at Fenway Park on May 14, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Kathryn Riley /Getty Images)
Seventeen "K" signs are hung up in the eighth inning for Chris Sale's (not pictured) of the Boston Red Sox career high strikeouts against the Colorado Rockies at Fenway Park on May 14, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Kathryn Riley /Getty Images)

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

Up front: this is a little selfish on my part, and I'm exploiting the benefit of hindsight here. But I was in attendance for the Red Sox' 5-4 extra-inning loss to the Rockies on Tuesday night, and almost unwittingly stumbled into baseball history Forrest Gump-style.

The WB Mason luxury box at Fenway Park was gracious enough to accept the presence of myself a friend on tickets we scored through his family. The covered, heated seating area shielded us from the disgusting misty rain and cold. We raided the free buffet and mini-fridge. I must have had me about 15 Dr. Peppers. When we could, we glanced at the Bruins game on the large flatscreen inside. And why not, we'll take a complimentary J.D. Martinez bobblehead.

We spent most of the night wondering what we did to deserve such high-class treatment. And those thoughts amplified with each Sale strikeout as he mowed batters down like he never had in his career.

Through six innings, Sale had allowed just one hit and struck out 14 batters. He hurt his own cause in the seventh by allowing a leadoff single to Trevor Story then a two-run home run to Nolan Arenado. But Sale bounced back tremendously as he struck out the side, leaving him at 17 punchouts with history within his reach.

Unfortunately, Sale's pitch count had climbed to 108 by that point. And it's more important that the Red Sox have their ace looking this strong in October. Far more crucial than some silly record against the Rockies in May. So Alex Cora pulled Sale to start the eighth.

The decision backfired. Brandon Workman, who had compiled a 1.50 ERA with 25 strikeouts in 18 innings entering Tuesday, induced a leadoff groundout before allowing a long double (nearly a home run) to Chris Iannetta. Then Charlie Blackmon launched a two-out, two-run bomb into the center field seats to give the Rockies a 4-3 lead. The Red Sox did come back to tie the game in the bottom of the inning on a pinch-hit RBI single by Mitch Moreland, but the damage was done. Colorado eventually won 5-4 in 11 innings.

To be fair, Sale's chances at 20 strikeouts were slim either way. The feat has only been achieved in a nine-inning game four times: Roger Clemens in 1986 and again 1996 (both for the Red Sox), Kerry Wood in 1998, and Max Scherzer in 2016. Randy Johnson got to 20 in nine innings in a 2001 start, but the game went 11 innings. I count that one.

But Sale got tantalizingly close. He "only" got one strikeout in the fifth inning, which severely hurt his odds. He likely would've had to go at least another 12-15 pitches to even give himself the opportunity for 20 strikeouts. He basically needed another immaculate inning. For Alex Cora, he calculated Sale's removal based on the suddenly close score, Sale's pitch count, and favorable matchups for Workman on paper. He admitted that Sale, perhaps knowing he'd get pulled anyway, asked whether he'd get a chance at the strikeout record.

"In the tunnel [Sale] goes, 'You're not gonna let me get 20?'" Cora said after the game. "But sarcastic, but probably serious too."

Sale was also caught on tape flashing a "2-0" gesture to Cora as he went back to the dugout after the seventh inning. But despite his awareness of his chance at history, Sale's look was that of a pitcher who knew he'd come up just short as his team preserves him for hopefully bigger things in the fall.

The sizzling southpaw respected the decision.

"I don’t think there’s a pitcher on the planet who has 17 punchouts and doesn’t want to go out for the last inning," Sale said, via Chris Cotillo of Mass Live. "But I respect [Cora] as much as anybody on the planet. I’ll never question anything he does, even in regards to me with that."

The silver lining is that Sale continues to show his typically dominant form after a shockingly poor start to the season (he's still just 1-5 with a 4.24 ERA) and has put a dismal April behind him. But it's fair to wonder now if Cora should have bypassed the matchups and numbers in favor of a starter who, aside from one costly pitch to Arenado, was entirely in command.

Despite Workman's dominance to start the season, Tuesday night's version of Sale should almost always be considered a higher-upside option, even at 108 pitches. Could Sale have at least gotten the first 1-2 outs of the eighth and bridged right to Matt Barnes?

Ultimately, Cora felt comfortable risking a May loss to build up credit for potential Sale wins in October. On Tuesday, he happened to take away Sale's chance at history in the process. There's a chance they end up with nothing.

To be abundantly clear, another World Series would make punting on a 20-strikeout game a worthwhile decision.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].