Even if Chris Sale's fiery speech didn't cause Boston's epic Game 4 comeback, it certainly didn't hurt

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·MLB columnist
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LOS ANGELES – First J.D. Martinez walked by, and then Andrew Benintendi, and then Mookie Betts. They didn’t so much as blink at the crazy man screaming at the air. Compared to some of Chris Sale’s other antics, his dugout eruption during Game 4 of the World Series rated as rather milquetoast. His brow furrowed. His arms gesticulated. His mouth loosed a barrage of F-bombs. Boston’s ace did land one particularly sick burn on Los Angeles Dodgers starter Rich Hill, who for six innings had limited the Red Sox to a single hit: “He throws two [expletive] pitches!”

This, like David Ortiz’s dugout speech to the Red Sox in Game 4 of the 2013 World Series and Jason Heyward’s to the Chicago Cubs during the Game 7 rain delay in 2016 and Justin Verlander’s to the Houston Astros in the midst of last year’s Game 2, is bound to be elevated into the annals of oratory legend should the Red Sox win the World Series, which they’re one game from after a stunning 9-6 victory Saturday night at Dodger Stadium. The speeches share no syntactic effervescence or illuminative genius but rather abide by a rule that is worth remembering: When good baseball players get pissed off, sometimes other baseball players respond.

Now, a couple things. First, inside of any playoff dugout at any particular moment, the likelihood of someone yelling isn’t exactly minuscule. Second, most of those speeches don’t happen to be caught on camera and blasted out to the world by Fox nor do they often directly precede seminal moments of the game. To say the Red Sox scratched back from a 4-0 deficit, won Game 4 and took a 3-1 series lead because Sale told Red Sox hitters to stop being terrible during the sixth inning, then, would be to say causation and correlation are one and the same. The only thing we can say with a decent amount of certainty is that Sale’s rant petrified the youngest player on the Red Sox.

Steve Pearce rounds first base after hitting a solo home run in the eighth inning of Game Four of the 2018 World Series. (Getty Images)
Steve Pearce rounds first base after hitting a solo home run in the eighth inning of Game Four of the 2018 World Series. (Getty Images)

“It scared me a little bit,” third baseman Rafael Devers said.

Beyond that, it is perhaps fairest to characterize the pep talk as Red Sox manager Alex Cora did: “It was a moment.” And you know what? On a night after the Red Sox lost the longest game in playoff history – an 18-inning, 7-hour, 20-minute battery drainer, the kind of defeat that can leech itself to a lesser team and suck dry its will – sometimes a team needs a moment to remind it what’s at stake.

Whether Sale managed to do that is neither clear nor particularly measurable. For some perspective, Martinez, the slugger who was part of an incredible 0-for-42 stretch by the Red Sox’s Nos. 1-4 hitters dating back to Game 2, meandered directly past Sale mid-tirade. “I walked by,” Martinez said. “I didn’t hear it.” Martinez asked what, exactly, Sale had said and was told the part about Hill’s arsenal. He smiled. “I think I heard that,” he said.

Martinez didn’t think it was all that big of a deal because he is a hitter, and hitters understand that Hill’s two pitches – a fastball he elevates with aplomb and a curveball that’s baseball’s version of a great crossover, buckling knees with regularity – are not some puzzle solved with try-hard. At the same time, when someone with a Hall of Fame pedigree like Sale finds a situation imperative enough to do his best imitation of that guy at the bus stop – you know the guy – it tends to resonate.

And when Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pulled Hill from the game with one on and one out in the seventh inning, suddenly the two-[expletive]-pitch guy was replaced with a one-[expletive]-walk guy (Scott Alexander), who gave way to a three-run-[expletive]-homer guy (Ryan Madson). That Roberts yanking Hill somehow rose to the level of presidential importance showed that Sale wasn’t the only person with hot takes on Game 4. It also gave way to Mitch Moreland defiling the trash changeup Madson left over the heart of the plate.

Just like that, it was 4-3, and the Dodgers were bowing. Closer Kenley Jansen entered to lock down the eighth inning and proceeded to give up a game-tying home run to the second batter he faced, Steve Pearce. It took one fewer batters for Jansen to blow this lead than it did the one in the eighth inning of Game 3, which devolved into the madness that shelved Dodgers relievers Pedro Báez and Julio Urías for Game 4.

And that gave the Boston its dream ninth. The Red Sox love to talk about their resiliency, and in some regards it’s true. They shook off a Game 2 Division Series loss to the New York Yankees. And a Game 1 ALCS loss to the Astros. And … before Game 3 against the Dodgers, those were the only two times they’d lost in all of October. Between that and the 108-win regular season, it’s not exactly like the Red Sox have traveled a road laden with adverse conditions. They have a huge payroll, incredible talent and a superb manager. The Marlins they ain’t.

This, though? This was feisty and spirited. This was the Red Sox staring at a potential tied series when they had been one swing in Game 3 away from courting a sweep. This was 4-0 to 4-3, then to 4-4, then to 9-4. This was Brock Holt poking a one-out double just inside the left-field line and Devers pinch hitting to drive in the go-ahead run with a single up the gut and Pearce later clearing the bases with a three-run double and Xander Bogaerts accounting for that final run with an RBI single. This was … facts.

BC (Before Chris): 1 for 19, one hit-by-pitch, two walks, six strikeouts.

AD (After Diatribe): 7 for 16, two home runs, two doubles, four walks, two strikeouts.

“Chris Sale is a leader,” Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers said. “And he did it the way Chris Sale knows how to get the team moving. We have to give him a lot of credit. It was perfect timing.”

He’s right. It was perfect timing, because it looks causative. And then you remember: Sale talking about how hittable Rich Hill should be didn’t cause Moreland to study how Madson pitched Jackie Bradley Jr. while standing on deck. After abandoning his changeup in earlier appearances in the series, Madson had started throwing it again and flipped a few to Bradley. Moreland came to the plate guessing first-pitch changeup, and when it arrived, he parked it well into the right-field stands. The 54,400 at Dodger Stadium who had made the place shake when Yasiel Puig walloped a three-run homer in the sixth to give Los Angeles its lead went almost silent.

The little moments like Moreland’s dissection of Madson – the studying hitters use to mitigate pitchers’ advantage – were abundant in the Red Sox’s comeback. It’s one of the chief reasons they can clinch a championship with David Price on the mound in Game 5 – or, perhaps, Sale, who’s going to be available out of the bullpen Sunday while also slated to start a potential Game 6.

Starting pitchers rarely speak out like Sale did because their play can do the talking only every fifth day. Even if the majority of hitters didn’t snap to at the sound of Sale’s harangue, they recognized its significance – that on a team with star hitters, he’s the only pitcher with the gravitas to do what he did and not suffer backlash on account of it. And after Game 3, with the brilliant and ill-fated performance of Nathan Eovaldi fresh on the Red Sox’s mind, Sale refused to let it go for naught.

Instead, the speech. It followed Cora’s postgame speech and a breakfast in which the Red Sox players and families hung together and a lax pregame routine. Anything to normalize this time of year, which is inherently abnormal, where starters are relievers and half the guys platoon players and Chris Sale is mad as hell and is not going to take this anymore.

Perhaps when he addresses the speech, Sale can speak to its contents. It looked as though there was a let’s-go element to it or maybe one where he wants to get Red Sox pitchers some runs. And some four-letter F-words. A lot of four-letter F-words.

Which are fine. See. That’s a four-letter F-word. So is foul, which Chris Sale was Saturday. And five. The Red Sox will play in Game 5 on Sunday. And they don’t want to fail, not in the Fall Classic, not with a feat like four championships in 15 years at their fingertips. They want to make one thing, and one thing only, a fact: That they are the kind of World Series champions who may not need a speech to win it but certainly don’t mind one, either.

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