No-hit stuff, secret handshakes, and the temptation of 20 K's - inside Chris Sale's latest masterpiece originally appeared on nbcsportsboston.com
BOSTON -- Twenty uniformed personnel took the field to start a dank, miserable evening at Fenway Park on Tuesday, including players, coaches, umpires, bat boys, and ball girls. Nineteen of them wore long sleeves to combat 44-degree temperatures that felt like late October.
The other was Chris Sale.
His knotty biceps defiantly exposed to the elements, Sale decided to bring an October feel to the yard, too. Except his contributions had nothing to do with heat and everything to do with electricity.
By the time he left the mound two hours later, after seven innings and a career-high 17 strikeouts, fans were chanting, "We want Sale." With the Bruins on the cusp of the Stanley Cup Finals and the Celtics hoping to conjure some more lottery magic, only an extraordinary performance could divert fans to an interleague baseball game, and hot damn if Sale didn't deliver.
Even with mist falling and the mercury dropping, Sale made Fenway Park crackle. He emphatically dispelled the notion that he is even remotely diminished by delivering his best outing in a Red Sox uniform, which is saying something.
Broadcaster Dennis Eckersley called it the best performance he had ever seen. Rockies slugger Nolan Arenado believed he was reliving the nightmare of Clayton Kershaw's 15-strikeout 2014 no-hitter. Red Sox manager Alex Cora admitted that a piece of him wanted to send Sale back out for the eighth inning and a shot at 20 strikeouts. And Sale?
"It was awesome," he said. "I love this game."
The record will show Brandon Workman served up the go-ahead two-run homer to Charlie Blackmon to deny Sale the win before the Rockies won it on Mark Reynolds' single in the 11th. But history will remember the game very differently because, on this night, Sale performed at a level matched perhaps only by Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens in a Red Sox uniform. If there's been a similar game in the last 20 years, it was Pedro dropping a 1-0 decision to Steve Trachsel, of all people, while striking out 17 himself in May of 2000.
"That was fun to watch," Cora said of Sale. "The first time being in something like that, you know? Watching the strikeouts and watching the pitch count. You want him to go as deep as possible."
Sale's velocity, the barometer by which we gauged him in his terrible start, was hardly vintage. He hit 96 mph once on the stadium gun, though Baseball Savant technically had the pitch at 95.9 mph. He threw only 10 fastballs above 94 mph, instead content to treat the Rockies like so many cats swatting at so much yarn.
His slider was otherworldly, alternately sweeping, darting, and biting. The Rockies only touched two of his 12 changeups, including a foul ball. He threw but one curveball, which Pat Valaika dutifully flailed at for strikeout No. 8 to end the third inning. He had pinpoint command of his entire arsenal.
You want mastery? This was mastery.
"When he went eight of nine to start the game, he could've had no fielders out there and we'd still have been losing," Reynolds said.
Sale made but one mistake, and Arenado didn't miss it, sneaking a 92 mph fastball into the Monster seats to pull the Rockies within a run at 3-2 in the seventh.
Sale kicked himself for trying to get a double play grounder against a superstar. Arenado breathed a sigh of relief.
"It was getting a little scary there," he said. "I thought a no-hitter was coming. In '14 we faced Kershaw and he threw a no-hitter at home and it was kind of like that, where he was just kind of dominant. I feel like we kind of just stole that one.
"What he did today was pretty unique. He struck out a lot of us."
Sale recorded strikeouts with every one of his pitches: four-seamer, two-seamer, slider, curve, change. Colorado had no idea what was coming as he constantly varied his plan of attack.
"A lot of people were worried and making a deal about him not pitching well at the beginning of the year, but over the course of a season he's going to be dominant, and you saw that tonight," said Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta. "That kind of stuff, all you have to do is throw strikes and he was definitely throwing strikes, and on top of that, he was throwing quality strikes. We have a really good team and a really good lineup, but he's a great pitcher. And great pitching always shuts down a great offense."
Sale wanted to come back out for the eighth despite being at 108 pitches, joking with Cora, "You're not going to let me get 20?" But the manager has two handshakes for his starters, and he gave Sale the one that said, "You're done."
"I don't think there's a pitcher on the planet, you've got 17 punchouts, you definitely want to go out for the last inning, but I respect him as much as anybody on the planet and I'll never question anything he does," Sale said.
Sale instead settled for the first seven-inning, 17-strikeout start in major league history. Coming on the heels of a brilliant 14-strikeout effort against the Orioles, it was the kind of performance that makes you want to fast-forward five days just to see what magic Sale has planned for us next.
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