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The story behind Chris Sale pitching in Game 4

Rob Bradford
October 10, 2018 - 2:25 am

NEW YORK -- For some, it was a shock.

Chris Sale pitching out of the bullpen was not normal, even by standards set by the weird world of the postseason.

"I had no idea," said Sale's father, Allen. "I was sitting in the stands and I started getting texts that Chris was out in the bullpen. I was nervous, but I'm always nervous."

"I had no idea," Red Sox starting pitcher Rick Porcello echoed. "The only thing you understand is if you’ve been the postseason before and you’re in a position to clinch a series it’s all hands on deck. He stepped up and took the ball. That’s what that guy is all about."

And then there were others who had a pretty good idea before, even before Sale trotted out to the bullpen in the fifth inning.

"I knew before," said reliever Matt Barnes, explaining he had asked the lefty about the plan before the game. "Anytime you can have Chris Sale taking the ball in the eighth inning. I got jitters from it. I was like, ‘This is sick!’ I don’t know who it was to but I was like, ‘This is sick!’ Anytime you see Chris Sale on the mound you feel pretty comfortable."

Other than the Red Sox punching their ticket to the American League Championship Series with a 4-3 win over the Yankees, the three outs Sale got in the eighth inning served as the signature moment. This was a pitcher who hadn't entered a game in the eighth inning or later since May 8, 2012, and here was serving as Craig Kimbrel's set-up man.

So, how did it all come about? That's a story within itself.

It was Sale who initiated the conversation Sunday, telling Alex Cora he wanted a chance. So the bullpen he would normally have thrown Monday was put on hold, leaving a window open for such the Game 4 appearance the lefty was clamoring for. But nothing was still close to certain.

"We basically said if Chris Sale's going in the game, this is a must-win game. We're all in," said Red Sox pitching coach Dana LeVangie. "We can't send him in there with a one-run game, because things can happen. We knew going in that he probably wasn't going to pitch unless we had a three- or four-run lead, because the chances of winning with the score like that are much greater, obviously. We talked about it beforehand, but the final decision didn't come down until two outs in the seventh."

That's right, two outs in the seventh inning.

While Sale had taken up residence in the bullpen during the fifth inning, the doubts still lingered among Cora, LeVangie and bench coach Ron Roenicke. Barnes had taken care of the sixth inning, and Ryan Brasier was locking down the seventh inning. But it was leaving the Red Sox an inning short leading into Craig Kimbrel.

"We talk about those one-inning guys go out there, Barnesy gets the three outs, do you want to send him back out? No, I don't want to send him back out, because those guys get through one inning, three outs here in Yankee Stadium, that's a huge hurdle," LeVangie said. "I felt the same way with Brasier. Let's move on to the next guy. I wanted to go with Chris. We all talked about it, myself, Ron, and Alex. We were debating it."

But the debate wasn't exactly settling itself with plenty of time to spare.

It was either bring Sale in or pitch Kimbrel for six outs.

"Craig getting six outs, the closer getting six outs, that's tough," the pitching coach explained. "I was all in for (Sale), because I know if there were any issues, the training staff would say no, you can't do this, so they're a part of this too. We all wanted to do it together, but it didn't get made until two outs in the seventh."

"He was prepared to do this and we needed to have the right situation," said Roenicke. "And I think it was."

Once Sale hit the mound the plan was for one inning. There were no firm pitch limits, with the understanding that he usually threw was could be classified as an aggressive 20-pitch-or-so bullpen between starts anyway. So out of the bullpen, he ran.

"Everybody was on board," said Cora, who told the media before the game the "chances were very slim" that Sale would see the mound in Game 4. "I even shouted to the dugout, 'Hey, we're all in. He's coming in.'"

With Christian Vazquez serving as his catcher ("I made sure I talked to Sandy (Leon), talked to Vazquy about it, make sure we're cleaning up everything. We tried to go about it the right way. It worked out," LeVangie noted regarding not utilizing Sale's usual batterymate) the lefty expertly mixed his 13 pitches. There were four changeups, five sliders and four fastballs, which maxed out at just under 96 mph.

Gleyber Torres flew out to deep center field. Andrew McCutchen grounded out to third. And Aaron Hicks was frozen on a called third strike.

One uncomfortable ninth inning later and Sale was back on schedule, looking forward to pitching Game 1 of the ALCS at Fenway Park Saturday.

"It was fun," Sale said. "I enjoyed it. Obviously, I threw out of the bullpen last year but that was my home to start my career. That was fun to get back in there and get a shot of adrenaline. Its what you want."

It's also what the Red Sox needed.