In Spite of Pitching Woes, the Red Sox Keep Swinging

BOSTON — Chris Sale stopped by his locker at Fenway Park for about a minute on Saturday afternoon, just long enough to shake hands and thank a visitor for wishing him well. He was scurrying between the field and the weight room, slipped a new shirt over his reedy frame — “SALE” tattooed between his shoulder blades — and off he went.

“Work day,” he said, smiling.

Sale, the seven-time All-Star who clinched Boston’s 2018 World Series victory with a strikeout, has not done much work on the mound lately. Tommy John surgery wiped out most of the last two seasons, and a rib cage injury has cost him more than half of 2022. He trashed a dugout tunnel at Class AAA Worcester last week on a rehab assignment, but paid for the damage and said he had acted like an idiot.

“Who’s perfect?” Sale told Boston reporters from the dugout on Thursday. “Name him. I’d love to shake his hand.”

Sale could have walked across the field and shaken hands with the Yankees, who have been about as perfect as a baseball team can be. The Yankees were 61-24 before Sunday night’s series finale with the Red Sox, a record for an 85-game start that the team has surpassed only twice in franchise history. Those previous teams, in 1939 and 1998, went on to sweep the World Series.

The Yankees missed Sale over the weekend — he’s scheduled to return Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Rays — and faced three rookie starters before Sunday. The Red Sox, who also started a rookie just before the Yankees arrived, had not started four rookies in a row since September 1945. Ted Williams was in Hawaii that month awaiting his discharge from the Marines after helping win World War II.

So, yes, it has been a while since the Red Sox found themselves in quite this predicament. But their rotation was vulnerable all along; the injured veterans — Sale, Nate Eovaldi (back), Rich Hill (knee), Michael Wacha (shoulder) — have rarely been durable, and a younger starter, Garrett Whitlock (hip), will return in a relief role.

Consider that attrition, and the fact that the Red Sox had somehow lost all eight series against American League East opponents this season before the Yankees came to town. You might expect them to be stumbling toward their fifth last-place finish since 2012, right? (Look it up.)

Yet after Saturday’s 6-5 victory in 10 innings, the Red Sox held the top AL wild-card spot, at 46-39.

“We worked so hard to get to this point, and I think there’s only one team, actually, in the league that is playing outstanding baseball — and we’re playing them right now,” Manager Alex Cora said. “The rest of them, they’re kind of in the same situation. There’s a few teams that are getting hot and they’re in the conversation now, but we look at the standings and I know the season doesn’t end today — but if it ends today, we’re in the dance. So you look at the positives.”

The positive is an offense that can still mash, trailing only the Yankees in runs per game among AL teams. The Red Sox lost Thursday and Friday, but trampled Gerrit Cole and Nestor Cortes for nine runs in nine and two-thirds innings. On Saturday, they came back to beat the Yankees’ lockdown bullpen.

It was the first time in 49 games this season that the Yankees had lost after leading through seven innings, and their fans had felt emboldened in enemy territory. When Aaron Judge doubled in the 10th to give the Yankees the lead, “MVP!” Cheers polluted the air. The Red Sox noticed.

“You could kind of hear it even today, Yankees fans chanting and chanting,” said outfielder Alex Verdugo, whose two-run single won the game. “It was just really loud for the Yankees, right? It felt like Boston was kind of getting overpowered vocally by Yankee fans. It’s one of those things, for me, it was like: ‘We’ve got to get this back. This is our house. This is where we play. This ain’t their field.'”

Verdugo drove in former Yankee Rob Refsnyder (he was batting .344 through Saturday) and rookie Jeter Downs, who rolled a single to right in the 10th-inning rally for his first major league hit. He is the namesake of, yes, Derek Jeter, who sent Downs a message when he played his first game in June.

“He tweeted at me and said, ‘Good luck, but not against the Yankees,'” Downs said, noting that his first hit, run and run batted in have now come against Jeter’s old team. “You can’t write a better story.”

The Red Sox got Verdugo, Downs and Connor Wong, the catcher at Worcester, in the deal that sent Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers in February 2020. Look around the Fenway stands or Back Bay streets, and you still see plenty of No. 50 jerseys, and they’re not for Saturday’s starter, Kutter Crawford.

Trading Betts will sting for a while, and lends an undercurrent of dread here about the future of other homegrown stars. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts can opt out of his contract this fall, and third baseman Rafael Devers is eligible for free agency after next season. The Red Sox have cut back on payroll recently and have other infield options: second baseman Trevor Story, who signed a six-year deal in March, and top prospect Marcelo Mayer, a shortstop in low Class A.

“That’s not entirely up to me,” Devers said through an interpreter Saturday, when asked about signing long-term with the Red Sox. “But I don’t know any other team. I love this city, I love my teammates, I love my coaches. So, yeah, of course I would love to be here. But at the end of the day, it’s not in my hands.”

Devers was hitting .327 with 19 homers and was leading the AL in wins above replacement through Saturday, according to Baseball Reference. He connected twice off Cole on Friday — “You’re supposed to fail seven out of 10 times in this league,” said Cole, who has served up six career homers to Devers. “I don’t know what the deal is” — but left Friday’s game with back pain.

Devers’ absence Saturday, coupled with the Yankees’ dominance and Boston’s depleted pitching, made that game seem like another lost cause. But the Red Sox prevailed, and soon Sale, their ace, will return. They won’t catch the Yankees in the division, but they won’t go away easily, either — and they knocked the Yankees out of the playoffs last fall.

“We always feel confident against the Yankees,” Verdugo said. It’s just one of those things, like the wild-card game last year, playoff games this year potentially — we will feel confident against them. We know that when it’s a do-or-die game, something like that, we’ll bring our energy, we’ll bring our game.”

The rivalry rolls on next weekend in the Bronx.

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