Chris Sale is a spectator in the Bronx this week, just another guy who wishes he could play.
“It’s Red Sox and Yankees — there’s always going to be some want for this series,” Sale said Tuesday. “It’s got a lot of everything, the history, two good teams playing well, one of the toughest divisions in baseball. It’s going to pop out to people.”
It pops out so much that Major League Baseball is bringing the series to London next June. Alas, because Sale pitched for the Red Sox on Sunday, he will miss this edition — like another star Boston left-hander, David Price. The Red Sox sent Price to Boston for tests after he cut short a bullpen session Sunday because of numbness in his pitching hand.
“We’ve been taking care of these guys from day one — spring training, the first month of the season,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “And as soon as I heard what was going on, I think we’re better off for him to see what’s going on, do more tests and go from there and make a decision.”
Price felt the same sensation during his last start against the New York Yankees on a frosty April night at Fenway Park. He gave up four runs in one inning then, part of a five-start stretch in which his ERA is 8.22.
In theory, an injured or ineffective Price should be devastating to the Red Sox, who are paying him an average of $31 million per year through 2022. But he made just 11 starts last year and the Red Sox won the American League East — and that was with Rick Porcello leading the league in losses (17), hits allowed (236) and homers allowed (38).
Porcello will move up a day and start for Price on Wednesday (Eduardo Rodriguez goes on Thursday), and he is back to being one of baseball’s best, with a 2.14 ERA and an AL-best 9.2 strikeouts per walk. Porcello won the Cy Young Award in 2016 but has revamped his pitch mix since then, using more change-ups and sliders than ever. His sinker — a risky pitch in the age of the launch angle — is better, too.
“He’s in that sweet spot now,” said Brian Bannister, Boston’s assistant pitching coach. “He’s getting a lot of depth on his change-up and a lot of depth on his sinker.”
The Red Sox backed off their starters’ workloads in spring training, planning for October in February. In Boston’s four-game division series loss to Houston last fall, an exhausted Sale, Porcello and Drew Pomeranz lasted a combined 10 innings in their starts. The Astros hit .333 off the Red Sox in the series, and though they beat the Yankees in the next round, too, they hit just .187 in that series.
The Astros (2.66), the Yankees (3.43) and the Red Sox (3.45) had the three lowest ERAs in the American League coming into Tuesday’s games. All three teams should return to the postseason this year, but either the Yankees or the Red Sox will be consigned to a wild-card play-in game. As the season goes on — especially if these teams remain as good as they look now — that will create a layer of anxiety that never existed in the early 2000s, when the lone wild-card team was guaranteed to play in a division series.
“That’s definitely not going through my mind — it’s May, it’s way too early,” said Boston’s J.D. Martinez, who played in the wild-card game last October for the Arizona Diamondbacks. “Obviously there’s a danger to it, because it’s a one-game elimination. But it’s fun. That’s a game that is good for baseball. It makes it exciting.”
Martinez, who signed in February for five years and about $110 million, led the majors in slugging percentage last season for Detroit and Arizona. He has helped the Red Sox recharge their lineup, plugging into the power they were missing last season, after David Ortiz’s retirement, when they hit the fewest homers in the American League.
These Red Sox led the majors in slugging percentage before Tuesday’s game, at .460, with 13 homers from Mookie Betts and eight from Martinez. They also led the majors in doubles, with 85 — six more than any other AL team (the Yankees are in third with 75) — and were tied for sixth in homers, with 46.
“Home runs are cool, home runs are welcome,” said Cora, the Astros’ bench coach last season. “But one thing they’re doing is doing damage with two strikes, which I saw last year firsthand with the Astros. Mookie did it at Fenway three times. And when you can do it like that with two strikes, I don’t want to talk about momentum in baseball, but it seems like the opposition gets down a little bit when you can just keep the line moving.”
Cora was referring to Betts’ second three-homer game of the season, which came last week at Fenway against Kansas City’s Danny Duffy. Betts, 25, has four three-homer games in his career — more than Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth combined.
“He wants to get better every day,” Martinez said. “He’s hungry for information. I’ve been around the game for seven years now, and you just don’t see players of that caliber that want that. You see a lot of star players that have a lot of ability and think they know everything, and I don’t feel like he’s one of those. He’s one that wants to know why, and I think that’s huge.”
The why about this Red Sox season has been fairly easy to answer. Why have they been so dominant? They’re doing everything right, with a $31 million ace to spare.