His timing sufficiently messed up by the two previous Chris Sale offerings, an 80-mph slider and an 84-mph changeup, Blue Jays designated hitter Lourdes Gurriel Jr. left his bat on his shoulder and listened to a 94-mph fastball pop Christian Vazquez’ mitt for Strike 3, the end of a six-pitch at bat and final out of a six-up, six-down start to Sale’s home opener.
The two-inning tease just made the next two innings more difficult to watch for the well-layered Fenway Park crowd of 36,179 who pined for the good old days of 2018 and endured 41-degree air under dark clouds Tuesday afternoon.
One of the clouds of doubt about the direction of the defending world champions was created by Red Sox management’s decision to sign Sale to a five-year, $145 million contract extension without taking a free look at him to ensure that he had put shoulder woes of last season behind.
There’s no crying in baseball. Otherwise, management might be wiping away tears of regret by now. There are no mulligans either. What’s done is done and if this merely is a temporary funk, the Red Sox will be happy to pay their ace $29 million a year. But at this moment, there’s no way the Sox can’t regret not having the discipline to wait to see how much life was in his left shoulder before giving him an extension.
Sale pointed the finger of blame for the 7-5 loss to the lowly Blue Jays only at his mirror.
“They score five runs on me, six guys come out of our bullpen, they only give up two runs. We’ve got to win that game,” Sale said. “This is very easy to throw on top of the pile and say we’re not playing good. This was not us not playing good. This was me sucking today. That’s frustrating. Today was the day we were going to turn it around. We’re back home, ceremony, in front of our home fans, playing our first home game, everyone did what they had to do except me, and that’s a frustrating spot to be in.”
Sale said “never in my life” has he been this lost.
“If I knew what it was I’d fix it,” Sale said. “I’m still searching, but I’ll find it. I know who I am. … I’ve got to find something. I better find something.”
Sale’s rocky effort started the third turn of the winless rotation for the Red Sox with an outing that was as brief as it was troubling. By the time Sale took the mound for the third inning, teammates had given him a 2-0 lead. By the time he walked off the hill at the end of his fourth inning, serenaded by foggy-breath boos, the Blue Jays led, 5-2.
In those final two innings, Sale (0-3, 9.00) allowed seven hits, all singles, some of the dribbler variety another a bloop, but those count too. A pitcher who doesn’t blow cheese past hitters is going to give up his share of cheap hits.
Sale has become a dominant pitcher by dialing up whatever pitch he needs for the situation and making the hitter try to beat him on a good pitch. Not happening yet.
When Blue Jays left fielder Teoscar Hernandez, far better at hitting flyballs than catching them, came to the plate with one out in the third, one run in, and runners on the corners, it was time for a strikeout or inning-ending double play. Instead, he drove in the tying run with a sacrifice fly.
In his first two innings, Sale threw six pitches clocked at higher than 91 mph, just one in his final two innings.
If these were the results anticipated with the slow-build plan put in place for Sale, then he should have been left behind at extended spring training to continue building arm strength, instead of being sent to the mound to lose games that count in the standings just as much now as during a pennant race.