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Can Chris Sale Save Boston's Bacon?

The Red Sox are clinging to a playoff spot amid a second-half swoon. How will their ace's return to the rotation affect their fortunes?

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A Red Sox team in desperate need of a good break finally got one Wednesday by way of a blowout 20–8 win over the first-place Rays. In two more days, they’ll get an even bigger one in the form of a 6' 6" perennial Cy Young Award contender.

Your mileage may vary on how you view Boston’s previous two weeks, in which the team has gone 2–10 before Wednesday’s game and went from 2.5 games ahead of Tampa Bay to five games behind. That stretch saw the team’s chances to win the AL East plummet from 69.0% to 22.3%, per FanGraphs. Was this an ill-timed slump from an otherwise legitimate World Series contender? Or a Mets-ian collapse that was months in the making? The truth is likely somewhere in between.

A single win and Chris Sale aren’t enough to turn the tide in what’s been a disastrous last couple of weeks. But Sale can be a salve for a rotation that started to take on water even before this latest rough stretch.

Chris Sale minor-league rehab bullpen

Chris Sale throws a bullpen session ahead of a recent rehab start.

In the past month, Red Sox starters have posted a collective 5.34 ERA, sixth-worst in the majors during that span. They’ve also averaged just 4.6 innings pitched per start (28th). Before that, the rotation had a 4.47 ERA and averaged more than five innings per outing. While rookie Tanner Houck and lefthander Eduardo Rodríguez have pitched effectively during this span, neither has pitched consistently deep into games, while the other members of the rotation have all faltered.

The trickle-down effect of the starters’ ineffectiveness is a beleaguered bullpen. Boston’s relief pitchers have the fifth-highest walk rate (10.8%) in the majors since the All-Star break, with a 4.98 ERA (23rd in MLB) and 4.58 xFIP (25th). All-Star closer Matt Barnes in particular has appeared overworked. He’s lost three times in his last four outings with one blown save, giving up seven runs in two innings. He had given up just one earned run in his previous 15 games.

Before Wednesday’s outburst, the Red Sox' lineup had also been sputtering. The team had the league's ninth-lowest wRC+ (95) and was batting .250/.310/.421 over the past month. A 20-run barrage is enough to make that power outage feel like a distant memory. Boston became the first team since 2004 to score 20 or more runs with just one homer (or none). This was also just the third time in franchise history that three players had at least two hits, two runs and four RBIs in the same game.

So just how much can Sale turn the tide? When he’s at his best, he’s clearly one of the top pitchers in the game, but the 2017 Cy Young runner-up hasn’t pitched in the majors since Aug. 13, 2019. He had Tommy John surgery in March 2020, and has made five rehab starts in the minor leagues. Sale had a 1.35 ERA with 35 strikeouts in 20 innings during those games, including 4 2/3 shutout frames with eight strikeouts in his last start for Triple-A Worcester.

While Sale isn’t lighting up radar guns like he used to, his presence on a big-league mound provides reason for belief after the Red Sox opted against adding a starting pitcher at the trade deadline. Sale’s arrival has bumped Martín Pérez and Garrett Richards to the bullpen, meaning he and Houck will join a rotation that now includes Rodríguez, Nathan Eovaldi and Nick Pivetta and will try to chase down Tampa Bay atop the East.

Though Sale’s 2019 season was the worst of his career statistically (he had a career-high 4.40 ERA in 25 starts), that type of production would be considered an upgrade over Boston’s current group. Sale pitched at least six innings in 15 of those 25 starts, and his 3.39 FIP and 3.45 xERA indicate he might have been a bit unlucky with his results. There’s no way to know how postsurgery Sale will compare to the pitcher we’ve seen dominate for most of the past decade, but getting eased back into action against the last-place Orioles will help him get acclimated to major league hitters.

On paper, Boston does not have the same level of pitching as the Rays or Yankees, or even the A’s for that matter. Inserting Sale into the mix for the stretch run gives the Red Sox a reason to believe the tide could turn in their favor soon enough. When Sale takes the mound Saturday, 732 days will have passed since his last MLB start. Boston doesn't need him to be the Sale of old to help their cause—but if that's what they get, it could change the complexion of the American League playoff race.

Quick hits:

• Adam Wainwright turned in one of the best starts of his storied career against the Pirates, needing just 88 pitches to throw a two-hit shutout. Both hits allowed were singles. He didn’t walk a batter, and he retired the last 15 batters he faced. Wainwright is the oldest pitcher to throw a shutout with that few pitches since pitches have been counted (1988), and he’ll turn 40 on Aug. 30.

• Corbin Burnes struck out 10 consecutive Cubs, tying the record that was also matched by the Phillies' Aaron Nola earlier this season. Before Nola, the last and only other person to do so was Tom Seaver in 1970. What was especially impressive about Burnes's version of this accomplishment was that all 10 Cubs went down swinging. Milwaukee's co-ace ended with 15 strikeouts on the night, the second-most in franchise history behind an 18-strikeout performance from Ben Sheets in 2004.

• Miguel Cabrera hit his 499th career home run off Matt Harvey in a 3-for-4 night at the plate. His next homer will make him the 28th member of the 500-home-run club, and he’s now just 50 hits away from notching his 3,000th.

• Just five days after getting over .500 for the first time this season, the Braves are back in first place in the NL East for the first time since April 29. Ozzie Albies crushed a walk-off, three-run homer in the 11th inning to make up for Atlanta's blowing a two-run lead in the ninth. The Braves have now won seven of their last eight games.

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