BOSTON — It was Chris Sale‘s turn to pitch, and not in a minor league scrimmage on some remote practice field, either. He took a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride to Tampa for a 7 p.m. game, pitched six strong innings, got back on the bus and arrived home shortly after midnight. No big whoop.
Besides, it gave him a taste — a spring training sip, if you will — of this whole Red Sox-Yankees thing.
If pitching in the postseason was the biggest thing Sale didn’t have a chance to do in seven seasons with the Chicago White Sox, taking part in an age-old rivalry might be No. 2. The White Sox have long fought for divisional supremacy with the likes of the Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals, but none qualifies as an intensely hated foe. Although the annual crosstown series with the Chicago Cubs once featured fisticuffs between catchers A.J. Pierzynski and Michael Barrett, it has always felt like a forced interleague creation.
But Red Sox-Yankees is the real thing — not just in baseball but across sports. Sure, it has lacked some sizzle the past few years, largely because the teams haven’t been serious playoff contenders at the same time. But it remains a capital-R Rivalry that dates back to Babe Ruth and includes some of the game’s biggest names, from Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Carlton Fisk through Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson, David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.
With the 2017 installment underway this week at Fenway Park, Sale is about to become the newest star to enter the ring when he takes the Fenway mound for the Red Sox on Thursday night.
Sale has kept a low profile since the season began, mostly limiting his availability to the media to after he pitches. But the ace lefty’s desire to face the Yankees on March 21, rather than going the minor league route, and his comments afterward indicate that he is aware that these games are relevant beyond the teams’ respective places in the standings.
“Obviously, anybody who knows anything about sports knows about Boston and New York,” Sale said. “Even from the outside looking in, you can see it. You can sense the competitive drive on these teams and in this series.”
Sale, 28, is off to a historically good start for the Red Sox. In four starts against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Tigers, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays, he has allowed three runs on 15 hits and six walks in 29 2/3 innings while racking up a league-leading 42 strikeouts. His dominance has even been compared to Martinez’s first season with the Red Sox, and indeed, it is “pretty darn close,” as Hall of Fame reliever Dennis Eckersley said. Through four starts, Pedro allowed three runs on 16 hits and seven walks in 32 innings while striking out 44.
“In another time, Sale’s lights-out start would’ve been enough to make George Steinbrenner fume. Nothing got under The Boss’ skin quite like Boston making a move for a star such as Sale, especially if the Yankees took a pass. Heads, or at least the one on general manager Brian Cashman’s shoulders, would have rolled.”
“It’s impressive, man,” second baseman Dustin Pedroia said of Sale. “He’s just attacking the zone and overpowering guys with all of his pitches. You go up there and gear up to try to hit, and you can’t. That’s when you know his stuff is overpowering. That’s pretty impressive.”
Said closer Craig Kimbrel: “He’s been great. You couldn’t ask him to do any more.”
In another time, Sale’s lights-out start would’ve been enough to make George Steinbrenner fume. Nothing got under The Boss’ skin quite like Boston making a move for a star such as Sale, especially if the Yankees took a pass. Heads, or at least the one on general manager Brian Cashman’s shoulders, would have rolled.
After Sale was acquired in December for a package of minor leaguers, including 21-year-old top prospect Yoan Moncada and Double-A flamethrower Michael Kopech, Cashman responded by calling the Red Sox “the Golden State Warriors now in baseball.” It was a statement that came off as part gamesmanship, part genuine admiration. Cashman referred to Boston’s star-studded starting rotation of Sale, David Price and Rick Porcello by saying, “They’ve got their [Kevin] Durant, their [Draymond] Green, their [Klay] Thompson and [Stephen] Curry.”
But Cashman also explained that the Yankees weren’t in position to make a comparable offer for Sale, even though their farm system is loaded with elite prospects. While the Red Sox have a core of young stars (Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi are all under 25 years old), the Yankees are a step behind, with Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge and Greg Bird getting established at the big league level and Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield still on the way.
“We have a game plan that we’re going to continue to stay diligent and determined with, and I think it will serve us well over time,” Cashman said. “I think where Boston certainly is sitting currently and where we’re currently sitting, we’re on different time frames.”
Yet the Yankees entered this week’s series with an 11-7 record, a half-game better than that of the Red Sox (11-8), who shudder to think of where they would be without Sale. Price is slowly rehabbing a spring-training elbow injury that likely will keep him out until June. The rest of the rotation — Porcello, knuckleballer Steven Wright and lefties Eduardo Rodriguez and Drew Pomeranz — has ranged from inconsistent to rotten.
Sale brought to Boston a reputation as a Yankee-killer. In 10 games (seven starts) against the team in his career, he’s 4-1 with a 1.17 ERA, the lowest of any pitcher who has thrown at least 50 innings against New York in the past 100 years.
“Can you knock on some wood for me?” Sale said in spring training. “I don’t know why I have had so much success against them. That’s a good question. They definitely run out some great ball teams. Sometimes you get lucky, I guess.”
Consider it unlucky, then, that the Yankees will catch Sale in this series. But with 19 games against the Red Sox, the Yankees are bound to see him frequently.
You can bet Sale will be ready. And there won’t be five hours of bus rides this time.