Chris Sale

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Chris Sale takes another step, still doesn't look full strength in victory over Indians

John Tomase
September 21, 2018 - 11:12 pm

Chris Sale inched closer to the postseason, but it's still unclear which version of their ace the Red Sox can expect when they open the Division Series on Oct. 5 against either the Yankees or A's.

Making his third truncated start since returning from the disabled list with shoulder soreness, Sale allowed five hits and two runs in 3 1/3 innings of a 6-5 win over the Indians. He struck out seven, walked none, and allowed a solo homer to Josh Donaldson. He threw 73 pitches, 48 strikes.

The good news is Sale once again had strikeout stuff in his longest outing since going five shutout innings vs. the Orioles on Aug. 12. The bad news is he didn't really cut loose on his fastball, topping out at 96 mph, but generally living at 93-94.

"That's a good team over there," manager Alex Cora told reporters. "It was a good test. He's feeling fine, so we'll see how he reacts the next few days."

It goes without saying that Sale is running out of time to ramp up before the playoffs. He'll start again on Wednesday against the Orioles and if all goes well, be stretched out to six or seven innings. Manager Alex Cora is already on record that the plan from there would be to limit him to aggressive bullpens or sim games to prepare him for the playoff opener at Fenway Park.

Based on what we saw Friday, Sale is headed in the right direction, but he isn't there yet. His fastball, which reached 100 mph en route to an All-Star start, hasn't rebounded to that level yet, and it showed in at-bats like a nine-pitch struggle vs. Jose Ramirez that ended in a groundout, or the Donaldson homer, which came on a 95 mph heater that caught too much of the plate.

"The velocity will come up," Cora told reporters. "This is more about repetitions. We saw 94, 95. I really didn't pay much attention to it. One thing I learned last year, because that was the team we picked to scout him for the playoffs, last year they put some good at-bats against him, and today he had them off-balance. We attacked them inside and there were some uncomfortable swings from the opposition, and that's good to see."

As great as Sale's numbers are this season, he didn't race out of the gates in April. The Red Sox held him back in spring training in the hopes of keeping him fresh for the long season, and it took him a few weeks to begin dominating.

As recently as June 1, his ERA stood at 3.00. From June 1 until July 27, when Sale's shoulder started acting up, he went 6-1 with 0.75 ERA in nine starts, striking out 97 in only 60 innings. He was the most unhittable weapon in baseball.

Then came the shoulder inflammation that ended up shutting him down twice and limiting him to only one start between July 27 and Sept. 11.

While the team's goal has always been to get Sale ready for October, the question now is if they'll get the dominant Sale of July, the taxiing Sale of April, or the fatigued Sale who allowed four homers last postseason.

The Red Sox would love to have a little more certainty in that regard, but it doesn't look like they'll know for sure until he toes the rubber in October and lets it rip.

Playing without a host of starters, including the entire outfield, the Red Sox rode the first big-league homers from Sam Travis and Tzu-Wei Lin, plus Rafael Devers' 18th long ball of the season, to a come-from-behind-win, in the process tying the 1912 franchise record for victories in a season with 105. "It's gratifying, don't get me wrong," Cora told reporters. "I hope we win one more before the season is over."