Tomase: Chris Sale insists he'll be fine, but here's why we should be skeptical

John Tomase
August 01, 2018 - 1:42 am

USA Today Sports


Dave Dombrowski strolled into Alex Cora's pregame press conference on Tuesday nattily attired in a dark blue suit with red and blue striped tie, wearing a satisfied smile. He had just finished a solid trade deadline by adding four-time All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler to earlier acquisitions Nathan Eovaldi and Steve Pearce.

He liked the position of his Red Sox, who owned the best record in baseball ahead of a showdown series against the Yankees that begins on Thursday. But then he tempted fate.

"Just like everything else, it will be settled on the field, how people perform, but I think they have a chance to perform well," Dombrowski said. "And I think we have depth as well. Now, if the wrong guys get hurt, you never can carry those type of things, it's after the trading deadline, but I think it's a good team."

Within an hour, one of the wrong guys got hurt.

The news came via tweet before being hastily updated. First the team's official Twitter account announced that ace Chris Sale had been placed on the 10-day disabled list with shoulder inflammation. A followup tweet quickly clarified that he was actually suffering from "mild" shoulder inflammation, an important distinction for Red Sox fans desperately seeking reassurance that Sale's absence is little more than a nothing-to-see-here blip on what would be a Cy Young season if it ended today.

The season doesn't end today, though. Two months remain before the playoffs, and we're officially Sale's wilting window. He's 11-4 with a league-leading 2.04 ERA and 207 strikeouts. He has been every bit as good as those numbers, if not better. With all due respect to fellow All-Stars Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, and Craig Kimbrel, he's the most indispensable player on the roster.

August is generally when the rifle jams, however. Sale's lifetime ERAs fall between 2.40 and 2.82 in every month between March and July. His ERA jumps to 3.22 in August, before soaring (that's a relative term) to 3.78 in September/October. His records similarly regress. He's 77-33 lifetime through July for a tidy .700 winning percentage, but just 14-13 in August and 11-16 in September/October.

So despite reassurances from both Dombrowski and Sale that this injury will only sideline him for one start before all returns to normal next week in Toronto, we have every right to feel skeptical, even as Sale routinely continues to hit 100 mph on the radar gun.

August marks a clear line of demarcation for Sale. His first start of the month is usually terrible: in six such starts since 2012, he's just 1-3 with a 6.51 ERA and eight home runs allowed in 37 1/3 innings. He has surrendered at least five runs in four of his six starts, including seven runs twice.

If that sounds alarmist, it should. Sore shoulders for aces are no shrugging matter, especially when said ace has a history of showing signs of strain at exactly this time of year.

"I'm not too worried about this," Sale said. "I know that we're the Boston Red Sox and all this other stuff, but I'm very optimistic that this is going to be a very short stint on the DL. With it being the DL, people get kind of antsy. But I'm not worried about it at all."

Sale's lack of concern is a good sign. But at this time last year, he was 13-4 with a 2.37 ERA. He went 4-4, 4.09 the rest of the way before allowing four homers and nine runs in a pair of ALDS losses to the Astros.

The Red Sox tried to anticipate this eventuality by slapping a governor on Sale in spring training and limiting both his pitch count and intensity. He didn't even throw 100 pitches until his fifth start of the season, in late April. He struck out 10 batters once that month; he's done it nine times since.

Were this injury occurring in May, it probably wouldn't be cause for concern. Back off, get healthy, return to form. The August timing is difficult to ignore, though, no matter how good Sale's stuff has looked all year. He has reached his witching hour.

The Red Sox with a healthy Sale are legitimate World Series contenders. Without him . . . don't finish that sentence. The wrong guy is hurt, and the Red Sox can only hope it's temporary.

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