Despite pitching woes, Red Sox continue to swing

BOSTON — Chris Sale stopped by his locker at Fenway Park for about a minute Saturday afternoon, just long enough to shake hands and thank a visitor for wishing him luck. He rushed between the field and the weight room, put on a new shirt over his reed body – “DIRTY” tattooed between his shoulder blades – and off he went.

“Work day,” he said, smiling.

Sale, the seven-time All-Star who won Boston the 2018 World Series with one strikeout, hasn’t been doing much work on the mound lately. Tommy John’s surgery has wiped out most of the past two seasons, and a ribcage injury has cost him more than half of 2022. He trashed a Class AAA Worcester dugout tunnel last week during a rehab mission, but paid the damages and said he acted like a fool.

“Who is perfect?” Sale told reporters in Boston by the dugout Thursday. “Name it. I would like to shake his hand.

Sale could have walked across the field and shaken hands with the Yankees, who were about as perfect as a baseball team can get. The Yankees were 61-24 going into 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. These previous teams, in 1939 and 1998, swept the World Series.

The Yankees missed Sale over the weekend — he’s due back against the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday — and faced three rookie starters heading into Sunday. The Red Sox, who also started a rookie just before the Yankees arrived, hadn’t started four consecutive rookies since September 1945. Ted Williams was in Hawaii that month awaiting his release from the Marines after helping win the Second World War.

So, yeah, it’s been a while since the Red Sox found themselves in that predicament. But their rotation was vulnerable all along; injured veterans – Sale, Nate Eovaldi (back), Rich Hill (knee), Michael Wacha (shoulder) – have rarely been durable, and a young 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 to American League Eastern opponents this season before the Yankees came to town. You might expect them to stumble towards their fifth-last spot since 2012, right? (Look for it.)

Still, after Saturday’s 6-5 win in 10 innings, the Red Sox held the top wildcard AL spot, at 46-39.

“We’ve worked so hard to get to this point, and I think there’s only one team, really, in the league that’s playing exceptional baseball – and we’re playing them right now,” said said manager Alex Cora. “The others are somewhat in the same situation. There are 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 for the dance. So you look at the positives.

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

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

“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 really loud for the Yankees, wasn’t it? It was like Boston was kind of vocally overpowered by the Yankee fans. It’s one of those things, for me, it was like, ‘We have to get this back. This is our home. This is where we play. This is not their domain.’

Verdugo led former Yankee Rob Refsnyder (he was batting .344 through Saturday) and rookie Jeter Downs, who threw a right-hand single in the 10th-inning rally for his first major league hit. He is the namesake of, yes, Derek Jeter, who messaged Downs during his first game in June.

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

The Red Sox got Verdugo, Downs and Worcester wide receiver Connor Wong as part of the deal that sent Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers in February 2020. Look around the Fenway Pits or Back Bay Streets, and you still see a lot of No. 50 jerseys, and they’re not for Saturday’s starter, Kutter Crawford.

Trading Betts will sting for a while and lend an undercurrent of dread here about the future of other local 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 recently slashed their payroll and have other options on the field: second baseman Trevor Story, who signed a six-year contract in March, and top prospect Marcelo Mayer, a shortstop in class A low.

“It’s not entirely up to me,” Devers said through an interpreter Saturday, when asked about a long-term signing 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, yes, of course, I would like to be here. But in the end, it’s not in my hands.

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

Devers’ absence on Saturday, coupled with the Yankees’ dominance and Boston’s spent pitching, made this game 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 leave easily either — and they knocked the Yankees out of the playoffs last fall.

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

The rivalry will continue next weekend in the Bronx.

nytimes sport

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