Former Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale sailing along for first-place Braves

ATLANTA (AP) — Chris Sale was hesitant to discuss how good he’s feeling after another strong start for the Atlanta Braves.

“I wish you guys would stop talking about it,” he admonished reporters with a smile, tapping the table he was sitting at. “Is this thing made of wood?”

It’s understandable that Sale wouldn’t want to jinx himself after all the injuries he endured with the Boston Red Sox.

Once one of the game’s most dominant pitchers, the guy with the funky motion and nasty stuff, Sale managed just 31 starts over the past four seasons, spending far more time in the training room than he did on the mound.

Desperate for starting pitching, the Braves decided to take a chance on the 35-year-old left-hander, acquiring him from the Red Sox in late December for prospect Vaughn Grissom.

So far, so good.

Sale (3-1) allowed just two hits over seven innings in a 6-2 victory over the Cleveland Guardians on Friday night — marking the third start in a row that he’s gone that far.

If that doesn’t sound all that impressive, consider this : It’s the first time since June 19-30, 2018, that Sale has lasted seven innings over three consecutive appearances.

“I really put a lot of emphasis on strengthening my shoulder and getting stronger and just being healthy,” he said. “I owed it to whatever team I was pitching for.”

Sale’s performance over the first month of the season has been a big boost for the Braves, who lost their ace starter, Spencer Strider, to a season-ending injury.

“You know the guy he is, the competitor he is,” first baseman Matt Olson said of Sale. “He’s gonna go out and compete with what he’s got that day. His stuff’s been great. He’s mixing it up well, keeping hitters off balance, the funky angles. It’s been fun to play behind him.”

Asked if Sale looks like the pitcher who had double-figure wins for seven straight seasons through 2018 — finishing in the top six of the AL Cy Young balloting each of those years — Olson insisted “he’s right there.”

“There’s been a lot of uncomfortable swings his last few starts,” the slugger said.

Sale’s slider has been a big part of his early success with the Braves, who have won 10 of 11 games to build baseball’s best record at 18-6.

“The slider has long been an attribute of my success,” he said. “It makes all my other pitches look better when I get that one synched up with everything else.”

Now, if only Sale can figure out a way to keep from giving up the long ball in the first inning.

All four homers he’s surrendered this season have come in the opening frame — including leadoff homers in his last two starts. Cleveland’s Steven Kwan went deep on the seventh pitch of the game, but the Guardians managed just one more hit and no more runs against Sale.

“If I could just get over the hump in that first inning, the game would be all right,” he said with a chuckle.

The Braves had no complaints. Sale walked one, struck out six and threw 67 of 95 pitches for strikes before turning it over to the bullpen.

Now, if he can just keep it going for a full year.

“Being healthy and staying healthy throughout the season is key,” Sale said. “You can’t help the team if you’re not there.”

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