NEW YORK — It was Aug. 3, the day after a rainout at Fenway Park, and Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell was outlining his plans for arranging the starting rotation around an unusually high number of days off in the schedule.
“You look ahead,” Farrell said, “and there’s three series against New York. Chris [Sale] is mapped out to be in every one of them.”
Farrell might as well have been wearing a pinkie ring, holding a cat on his lap and cackling fiendishly, for this was a plot straight out of the Dr. Evil playbook. The division-leading Red Sox would use one of the days off to give Chris Sale extra rest before an Aug. 8 start at Tampa Bay, then line up their ace to pitch in each of the three series that remained against the New York Yankees, their closest pursuer in the American League East.
Well, not exactly.
Sale dominated the Yanks for seven innings and took a no-decision in a 10-inning, 3-2 Sox win on Aug. 13 in the Bronx. No shame in that, certainly. But he allowed four runs in seven innings of a 4-3 loss six days later at Fenway. And on Sunday night at Yankee Stadium, he gave up three solo homers — including back-to-back shots for the first time in his career — and lasted only 4⅓ innings in a 9-2 loss that shaved the division lead to 3½ games.
So much for burying the Yankees under an avalanche of Sale fastballs and sliders.
“We’ve got plenty of time left. Now is definitely not the time to panic,” Sale said. “We know where we’re at. We know what we need to do.”
Here’s where Sale is at: In his past six starts, including seven shutout innings last Tuesday night in Toronto, he has a 4.57 ERA. He has gotten knocked around twice by both the Yankees and Cleveland Indians, teams that are likely bound for the postseason. Once the clear-cut favorite to win the Cy Young Award, Sale now appears to be in a dead heat with Indians ace Corey Kluber.
And here’s where the Red Sox are at: After getting swept by the red-hot Baltimore Orioles and sweeping the last-place Toronto Blue Jays, they dropped three out of four games to the Yankees. They scored nine runs on 22 hits in the series and went 1-for-27 with runners in scoring position, continuing a season-long trend over 19 games against the Yanks in which they went 20-for-140 (.143) with runners on second or third base.
“It’s probably historic,” Farrell said, “when you look at it.”
Fortunately for the Red Sox, they won’t have to see more of the Yankees during the regular season. The teams played 10 games in a span of 24 days but won’t face one another again unless they meet in the postseason.
It stands to reason, then, that this series was more important to the Yankees, who played with far greater urgency. Entering Sunday night, the Red Sox had an 87.8 percent chance of winning the AL East, according to FanGraphs, and those odds aren’t likely to change much after one loss.
But if Sale had overwhelmed the Yankees as the Red Sox envisioned when they aligned their rotation last month, the division would be all but wrapped up by now. Instead, the Yankees are still hanging around, just like the concern over whether Sale is fatigued or, even worse, headed for another September struggle.
“Don’t worry about me,” Sale said. “I’m doing all right.”
But is he? For the second consecutive game against him, the Yankees ran up Sale’s pitch count early, making him throw 24 pitches in the first inning, 22 in the second and 36 in the fourth. They fouled off 26 of the 109 pitches he threw. Chase Headley’s third-inning homer came on an 0-2 pitch, only the fifth time that has happened to Sale in his career.
“Hung a breaking ball that Headley hit. Same thing with [Todd Frazier in the fourth inning],” Sale said. “Holliday hit a homer on a fastball. Just got to be better than that, especially knowing the ballpark we’re playing in. Just got to be better at executing two-strike pitches than I did tonight.”
Perhaps it was the familiarity of facing the Yankees three times in four weeks that doomed Sale?
“It could be, but at the same time, they’ve got to adjust to me just like I got to adjust to them,” he said. “They were putting long at-bats together, fouling some pitches off, taking some good pitches. So, it was up to me to make an in-game adjustment, and clearly I didn’t.”
Or maybe the workload is catching up to Sale? After all, he leads the majors in innings (189 2/3) and strikeouts (270) and has thrown at least 100 pitches in all but three of his 27 starts.
“I feel real good,” Sale said. “We’ve done a lot of things over the course of the year, even dating back to spring training, to get over this hump right here.”
The hump has tended to be larger in September. Since he became a full-time starter in 2012, Sale’s ERA in the last month of the season entering Sunday night was 3.86, nearly a full run higher than his 2.97 career mark.
“He’s set such a high bar for himself, not only this year, but throughout the course of his career and certainly this season, the way he’s pitched,” Farrell said. “We’ve got a couple of off days that we’ll take advantage of to get him some extra rest.”
The Red Sox will hope that plan with Sale works better than the last one did.