He only finished the World Series by striking out the side to finish Game Five. But the real signature moment for Chris Sale, one of the best pitchers in the American League for several seasons and counting, came in Game Four, when he wasn’t even a pitching topic.
Bottom of the sixth. Yasiel Puig has just hit a three-run homer halfway up the left center field bleachers, and it looks like the potential Game Four-winning blast. Red Sox starter Edwin Rodriguez slams his glove to the ground in self-disgust as Puig starts running the bases after his celebratory bat flip. Dodger Stadium sounds like the roaring of jet engines at not-so-nearby Los Angeles International Airport.
Sale in the Red Sox dugout sees real cause for real alarm. He’s on his feet and, shall we say, talking. And it sure doesn’t look like he’s giving the kind of soothing reassurances in which long-enough retired David Ortiz bathed his mates during Game Four of the 2013 Series. His precise words couldn’t be captured unless you were sitting behind the Red Sox dugout, but the words two f@cking pitches! were picked up somehow. Possibly a reference to the Red Sox being held to two hits to that point by Dodger starter Rich Hill.
This may have been the only time on record in which a pitcher hollered, cussed, browbeat, or all-the-aboved his team into turning a 4-1 deficit that looked like it was going to tie the Series at two games each into an explosive late comeback of a 9-4 win to push the Dodgers onto the brink of the elimination into which they’d be bludgeoned in Game Five.
The comeback win that ended with Sale striking out Justin Turner, Enrique Hernandez, and Manny Machado uninterrupted, with only Hernandez making it interesting by wrestling Sale to a full count before swinging and missing. Sale zipped Turner on three straight pitches and magnanimously allowed Machado one ball before zipping him, too.
Now Sale’s zipped his signature on the dotted line and landed himself a five-year, $145 million extension with the Red Sox.
The Olde Towne Team has decided the shoulder inflammation which limited Sale’s service availability down the stretch last season—and probably took him out of the Cy Young Award running, since he was disabled after missing two post-All Star starts and then again after a five-inning shutout performance against the Orioles, but still led the league with his 1.98 fielding-independent pitching rate despite not quite pitching enough for title or award consideration—is as past as Sale himself swears it is.
The average $29 million annual value of Sale’s new deal puts him behind only Zack Greinke ($34.4 million AAV), Clayton Kershaw ($31 million AAV), David Price ($31 million AAV), and Max Scherzer ($30 million AAV). It may also mean he may be underpaid if he lives up to the valuations conjugated by FanGraph’s Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection that Sale through age 35 (when the new deal expires) may yet be worth a sliver short of an average annual 5.0 wins above a replacement-level player over the life of the deal. (Lifetime, Sale has 43.0 WAR and has finished top ten five times in his nine-season career to date.)
At this writing Sale leads all active starting pitchers with his 10.9 strikeouts-per-nine innings rate and his 5.31 strikeout-to-walk rate; only Kershaw’s is better than his lifetime 2.89 ERA and +144 ERA plus. He may also be among the leaders among active pitchers disinclined to talk about themselves above or beyond the game on the mound and the field. Like Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, Sale’s least favourite subject of conversation is himself.
“He spent a good 10 minutes explaining why, he’s sorry, but it’s just too awkward to talk about all the things he doesn’t like to talk about,” writes The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, who tried to ask, anyway. “The quiet acts of kindness. The bold moments of leadership. The goofy interactions that are difficult to square with a player who’s so serious about his craft. Sale doesn’t like to talk about himself, and the ramifications of that personal preference are really not his concern.”
When two members of the Red Sox’s media relations department ran the Boston Marathon for charity, Sale whipped out his checkbook and wrote big checks to each—without being asked.
When teammate Eduardo Nunez’s older of two young sons approached Sale and asked for some pitching advice earlier this spring training, Sale forgot how gassed he was from a strenuous bullpen and workout session, put down his phone, and asked the kid to show his mechanics. Then, Sale talked to the lad about pitching philosophy, patience, and the art itself.
But if you’d asked the Red Sox about just what Sale said during his Game Four dugout dump, you get a lot of contradictory answers. As The Athletic‘s Boston reporter Jen McCaffrey recorded after Game Four, it all added up to Sale trying to fire his teammates back up, but just how he did it depended upon whom you asked.
“I couldn’t tell you what he said,” said Mitch Moreland, who had a monstrous three-run homer of his own to pinch hit half an inning after Puig exploded. “I’m sure it was something to fire us up, and obviously it worked. So it was a good one for us.”
“Chris, in the dugout screaming?” said manager Alex Cora, with a reported smirk. “My English is very limited, so I didn’t understand what he was saying.” (Cora’s English is, of course, very, very good.)
“I was definitely there. At that moment that was huge because it motivated us,” said Rafael Devers, who would pinch hit and bust a four-all tie with a single to start that five-run Game Four Red Sox ninth. “It scared me a little bit because I had never seen him yell like that and the words that he was saying, I had never heard that come from him before. But, you know, we came out sluggish and that moment helped us get motivated for the rest of the game.”
And, the Series.
That’s what the Red Sox bought with $145 million over five years. A marksman on the mound. A heart and soul man off the mound. And, if need be, the guy who’ll rip you a few new ones in the dugout if he thinks you look slack or listless with a World Series potentially on the line.