Sale pushes Red Sox to .500: ‘Big step in the right direction’

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The Boston Red Sox are at .500 for the first time since the second game of the season, something nobody expected to say about the defending champions as the schedule approaches mid-May. Celebrating climbing back to .500 shouldn’t represent a major achievement, but that’s where Boston is right now after its limp start out of the gate, and after wrapping up a 12-inning, 2-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday.

With a walk-off home run-robbing catch in the 12th inning from Jackie Bradley Jr., a strong performance from Chris Sale and homers from Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi, Boston pieced together a strong pitching performance complemented by timely offensive sparks, something absent in April but showing up more regularly in May. It’s what the team will need consistently to pull itself back into the American League East race.

Sale cruised through the Orioles lineup Wednesday, tossing 5⅔ no-hit innings before allowing a single to Baltimore outfielder Joey Rickard, who came in to score on a Trey Mancini double. And sure, the Orioles aren’t the Murderers’ Row Yankees of the 1920s, ranking 23rd in total offense in baseball this season. Still, Red Sox pitchers had 22 strikeouts and no walks Wednesday, the highest total of K’s without a walk in baseball history, according to Elias data.6

There’s no way to sugarcoat this: Chris Sale was terrible in April. The stat line speaks for itself. Having more runs allowed (17) than strikeouts (14), as Sale did through four starts, is not a recipe for success. Sure, the Red Sox ace didn’t throw many innings in spring training, and sure, Boston is defending a World Series title after playing an extra month of baseball in 2018. But particularly after Sale signed a five-year, $145 million extension this offseason, much more was expected, and at least through April, the results looked disastrous: a 6.30 ERA in 30 innings pitched, with 32 strikeouts and seven homers allowed.
The Red Sox will need to see more of this Sale if they plan on maximizing the team’s talent this season. Through the first four starts of the year, the Boston lefty posted a 8.50 ERA in 18 innings pitched, allowing 23 hits, 17 earned runs, striking out just 14 with opponents hitting .311/.361/.581. In his four starts since, Sale has a 1.80 ERA in 25 innings pitched, allowing 15 hits and five earned runs while striking out 42 batters. Opponents are hitting just .165/.248/.341.

At one point early in April, the Red Sox pitching rotation ranked second-worst in the American League, allowing more homers than any team other than the Orioles. Boston still ranks 21st in baseball in team ERA, but things are trending in the right direction. In eight games in May, the Red Sox rank fifth in baseball in team ERA at 2.82.

“It’s a big step in the right direction,” Sale said. “We’re starting to put it all together collectively as a group.”

The offense didn’t provide a ton of run support Wednesday for its 30-year-old ace, but came up with a pair of homers to cement the victory for Boston. Betts smashed a towering 400-foot homer in the third inning, capping off a strong road trip for the reigning American League MVP. Betts struggled through the early stretch of the season, hitting just .200 with a .676 OPS in his first 19 games of the season. Entering Thursday’s game, Betts had batted .391/.500/1.125 with 25 hits since then. In May, the Red Sox have the best offense in baseball, scoring 50 runs. Benintendi capped off the evening with a solo homer in the 12th. In between there was Bradley’s fabulous leaping catch in the bottom of the 11th, robbing Mancini of what would have been the winning homer.